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Thursday Quotables – Street Scene

Chicago Stories (James T. Farrell)

A burly, red-faced policeman pushed his way through the growing crowd. He looked at the old man. Who met his gaze with innocent eyes.

“What’s wrong?” the policeman asked.

“Hello, officer.”

The policeman looked at him dubiously. He pushed his cap back on his head and scratched his head.

“What’s the matter with you, huh? Come on, what’s the matter?”

A woman tried to tell the policeman what had happened.

“I’m all right, officer. I’ve just laid down here because I feel kind of tired. I thought maybe I’d just like to lay down and die, that’s all. I only want to be left alone so that I can lay down and die.”

Some of the on-lookers laughed.

“What?” the cop asked, angry and bewildered.

“Can’t you let me alone? Can’t you let me alone to die in peace?”

“Come on, now, none of this wise stuff. Move on! Get up and move on! Do you hear me?”

“Can’t I die in peace? I tell you, all I want is to die in peace.”

“You heard me! Move on! I don’t want any monkeyshines here. This is a public place.”

STREET SCENE by James T. Farrell – A vivid portrayal of city life in 1920s Chciago #shortstory Share on X

James Farrell’s philosophy about storytelling was that stories have to mimic life, to the point that he forsook the narrative structure in favour of the actual reproduction on life.

This is the part what I’m finding hard relate to, because often, Farrell’s stories… well, don’t really tell a story. Not in the sense we normally understand. They depict a moment, a situation, an incident, but often you don’t see characters evolve, often you don’t even see a situation evolve. He presents you with a fact and you have to extrapolate a meaning from that, and sometimes the meaning is there is no meaning.

I’ve found that some of Farrell’s stories don’t really leave anything to me, but some others they let a kind of understanding filter over. Sometimes, they are even amusing. This is where Street Scene (from the Chicago Stories anthology) belongs: it’s a vignette, where nothing actually happens, and still the situation is both unusual enough to be amusing, and common enough to be recognizable. And trying to watch deeper than the mere event narrated, you can even extract a more profound meaning.

This was a fun one.

Did you like this quote? Here’s a few things you might want to do.

  1. Head over to Bookshelf Fantasies, who sponsors the Thursday Quotables, and join in the fun.
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STREET SCENE (James Farrell) "Street Scene" from James Farrell's collection "Chicago Stories" is a surprisingly vivid portrayal of street life in suburban Chicago (book review)
Pinteret pin. The title reads, "Street Scene (James Farrell)  - book review". The picture shows a black-and-white picture of one of Chicago's main streets.


  • Jeri Burns
    Posted June 18, 2015 at 13:11

    Oooh, I found that scene to be intriguing and deep too. There was what you expect in the characters and what you don’t expect. That’s what grabbed me because at first, all the description seemed archetypal, almost stereotypical. I kept thinking what a writing teacher would say…. then it shifted.I have not read this author, not yet.

    Miss our regular interactions, I have been ‘out-of-blog-touch’ lately working on projects. Is Thursday quotables focused on only fiction??

    • Post Author
      Posted June 19, 2015 at 08:39

      So happy to see you here! I was just thinking I haven’t seen posts from you for a long time. But if you are working on projects, then that’s fine 😉

      I don’t necessarily like all of Farrell’s stories (in fact, I didn’t like quite a few), but the ones I do like really touch something inside me, and in a way that seldom happens with stories, just because they are so peculiar.

      The Thursday Quotales happens every Thursday (go over to Lisa’s blog for details). I’ve only just seen a non-fiction quote once, normally it’s fiction, but I don’t think there is any actual restriction.
      Are you going to join? 🙂

  • Melissa Barker-Simpson
    Posted June 18, 2015 at 14:14

    I found the Street Scene truly fascinating. There’s so much divulged, and yet hardly anything at all. It’s a little disconcerting! Thank you for sharing. I need to explore more of Farrell’s work 😀

    • Post Author
      Posted June 19, 2015 at 08:40

      Some of Farrell’s stories are indeed disconcerning, because they never have an actual story structure. They are vignettes, almost all the time. And still some of them hide a story in the plain description of events.
      It’s really very strange 🙂

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted June 19, 2015 at 03:51

    I liked this one, though it seemed a little dark to me. Reminds me a little of an episode of twilight zone without the end of the story. I find the cops response insensitive. The crowd’s amusement unsettling. Does this old man really just want to settle down and die alone like an old Indian ? Or is it a cry for help? Society just wants to move along to their own agenda and not be interrupted by the plight of others. Mankind tends to feel an almost giddy relief when it’s not them who has the disease, it’s not them that goes through the disaster, it’s not them that lost their job, etc. Then again, maybe I just think too much!

    • Post Author
      Posted June 19, 2015 at 08:49

      The story is actually quite light-hearted, more than many other stories I’ve read by Farrell.
      The old man’s attitude is impish. The story starts with him deciding, ok, I’ll lay down here. Myabe I could even die, let’s see what happens. People start stopping and asking him what’s happening, but he doesn’t bother. Then the pollice come, first a cop, then a few of them, and the man refuses to rise and leave, and keeps saying, I just want to lay here and die, I’m not doing anything wrong. Then the police succeeds in making hin stand and he leave in a police car, winking at people around.

      It isn’t a dark story at all, and I like the interaction. The old man deciding to do something different, or something people normally do in a different way. His resistance to the common question of people around, who just watch but don’t really do anything to help him or to hinder him. Then the police (the norm of society) forcing him to go back to a normal, acceptable way of behaving. The old man finally obliges (after much resistance), but once again, he does it putting his personality into it, which allows him not to be really defeated.

      In the end, I find this a positive story. And see? Even if the events don’t really look like a story, there is an undercurrent of narration beneath to surface. This is when I like Farrell’s stories 🙂

  • Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies
    Posted June 19, 2015 at 15:09

    I really like this little piece. It’s sad, but makes me laugh too. The old man isn’t actually bothering anyone, is he? He just wants to die in peace… on the street. I love the description of the policeman’s reaction.

    • Post Author
      Posted June 22, 2015 at 06:37

      No, the old man is not bothering anyone… and he is not going to die on the street eight 😉
      I love the reaction of the policeman too. I think this story is more about people’s reaction than about the old man, who is clearly (if you read the entire story) provoking a reaction.

  • Mimesis Heidi Dahlsveen
    Posted June 21, 2015 at 05:09

    Being a storyteller, I find this piece quite fascinating. The scene is quite close to drama/play though.

    • Post Author
      Posted June 22, 2015 at 06:38

      Yes, it is heavily based on dialogue. Which is one of the resons why I enjoyed it so much. It allows you to experience the story, nearly as if you were there.

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