Last post, I started talking about the ways that Ann Petry confronts the mythological American Dream in her novel The Street. Today, I want to continue that discussion, specifically focusing on chapter six when Lutie goes to the Junto Bar & Grill. In this chapter, the Junto, as it does throughout the novel, serves as an escape from the crushing poverty and oppression that Lutie and other African Americans endure on a daily basis as they try to live and work in a society that continually hinders any means of advancement. While Junto, the white man who owns the bar and grill, is important, I’m not going to focus on him today; rather, I will merely focus on the numerous references to the fact that the Junto’s bar, like the American Dream itself, is nothing more than illusion for many.
Junto, both the man and the bar, reference Benjamin Franklin’s Junto club, a society formed in 1727 for Franklin and his friends to gather and debate various issues for the mutual benefit of society. This connection to Franklin is important, because Franklin’s autobiography serves as the foundation for the myth of the American Dream, the myth that anyone, no matter where the person begins, can succeed and advance through hard work, diligence, and good living. However, this myth gets upended when one really looks at Franklin’s text because when we pay close attention to the moments that Franklin succeeds he always has individuals around him to help. However, he does not fully acknowledge them. They appear fleetingly, coming and going as if they had no impact on Franklin’s success. Along with this, Franklin’s whiteness and gender makes it easier for him to advance compared to some like Elizabeth Freeman who was enslaved, Black, and a woman.
For the residents of Harlem, the Junto represents an escape, a place they can go to forget about the poverty and racism that constantly envelop them. During the winter, people found “warmth by standing in front of the Junto,” and in the summer, the line outside increased because “the whirr of the electric fans and the sound of ice clinking in tall glasses reached out to the street and created an illusion of coolness.” The mere psychological illusion of coolness inside compared to outside brings people to the door, queuing up in hopes of escaping the summer heat. That illusion runs throughout the Junto. The discussion of the servers, all white, adds to it because it presents Blacks and whites on an equal social plane, or even a reversal where whites serve Black patrons. However, this does not hold up because what really occurs is that the whites who work for Junto make money then leave the community, taking the money they earn with them to their own communities. I’ll talk about this more in the next post.
Lutie knows that the Junto exists as nothing more than illusion. She goes, as the narrator says, “so that she could for a moment capture the illusion of having some of the things she lacked.” She goes to touch the American Dream, the dream she longs for after working for the Chandlers. She feels its illusory nature, and if she cannot have it completely, she might have a fleeting taste of it, if just for one night. Even though she wants to feel it for a night, she still worries, constantly, about the effect that this moment will have on her finances and her son. She worries about how much money she will spend if she buys one or more than one drinks, how much those drinks will cut into her weekly finances that sustain her and Bub.
Even though Lutie knows she could buy a beer cheaper at the corner store, she goes to Junto’s for “the other things that the Junto offered,” the things that she wanted like “the sound of laughter, the hum of talk, the sight of people and brilliant lights, the sparkle of the big mirror, the rhythmic music from the juke-box.” She seeks stability and happiness, things that she does not have in her daily life due to the crushing weight of poverty and racism. She sits at the bar drinking, and as she does, she looks into the “big mirror,” looking for the ways that the glass, reflecting the scene bak to her, changed reality. Lutie, as she looked into the mirror, “found that she herself looked young, very young and happy in the mirror.” The mirror reflects how she wants to feel, the feeling that the Junto provides for her, a feeling that will leave when she exits back out into the street.
Continuing to look into the mirror, Lutie notices Junto sitting in the corner, and “his squat figure managed to dominate the whole room.” Junto lingers, on the periphery, looking on as patrons spend money in his establishment, making him richer because they seek to escape their realities, even if for only one night. He would always sit at the same table when Lutie frequented the Junto, “his hand cupped behind his ear as though he were listening to the sound of the cash register,” taking everything in as he thought about the money filling his pockets. When their eyes meet in the mirror, Lutie looks away, forgetting him and thinking about the rest of the room.
For Lutie, the mirror makes the Junto look enormous, pushing “the walls back and back into space” as the lights gave the room a specific “rosy radiance.” This illusion allowed the patrons to clear their minds of their apartments and “the existence of dirty streets and small shadowed rooms.” People needed the Junto to feel like they had access to the American Dream, to some idea of success even amidst the pain and suffering. Ordering another drink, Luti began to think, “No matter what it cost them, people had to come to place like the Junto . . . to replace the haunting silences of rented rooms and little apartments with the murmur of voices, the sound of laughter; they had to empty two or three small glasses of liquid gold so they could believe in themselves again.” The illusion is necessary. The illusion provides hope. Without it, the patrons’ existence would be even more unbearable.
Yet, the illusion merely exists for a moment then retires back into the ether. It does not remain. It provides a momentary balm that goes away once one leaves and walks back into the street. Lutie allows herself, while she is at the Junto, to look into the future, to see the life that her and Bub could have, if she continued to work hard. Yet, her mere hard work and perseverance would not allow her to succeed. In the next post, I’ll finish up looking at Lutie in the Junto. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.