The lamentable times we find ourselves in are rife with class disparity and injustice. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and cheap, ambling diatribes against these injuries grow more and more cliché. The circumstances of this economic downturn are aggravated by mass transference of media via the internet, allowing, for the first time, selective exposure to our world. Inundations of news, scandal, intrigue, vie for our attention so much that the poor are overlooked in the discord. But the vagrants still roam the streets, plainly visible to those who see them. They mumble along overnight shanties. They limp through society’s waste. They even sing. Will Eisner was not a stranger to these kinds of street urchins. He grew up with them saturating the boroughs of New York City. The Street Singer reflects a particular genus of impoverished denizens—those that would sing from tenement to tenement in search of pennies and dimes to support themselves. While today it is not common to see roving troubadours on street corners trying to eke out a living, these street singers were a once and a lifetime phenomenon that arose during the Depression era. Their singing was a salve to those that already had felt the sting of poverty. Why else would they get paid? Their singing, in fact, was notable enough that Eisner wrote The Street Singer to paint a vivid portrait of a lost art form. In Eisner’s characteristic unfiltered narrative style, he develops the story of Eddie, a street singer who squanders his chance at leaving Dropsie Avenue.
The Street Singer implements strong sexual overtones that follow the narrative to its tragic conclusion. The object of love changes with each character. Each relationship defines the key players that are encountered in the work. Eddie’s love is inebriation. This isn’t necessarily in regards to booze, either. Booze and sex are the opiates that numb his senses, to return him nostalgically to the place of familiarity and comfort he enjoyed before the economic downturn when he was an accountant. The money that is given to him, that he could use to buy a new suit to look presentable to Sylvia Speegel’s talent scout, funds his alcohol habit. Not only does the alcohol buy him escape, but it also purchases freedom from responsibility. Eddie’s habitual drunkenness serves to keep at bay opportunity, which could invariably become failure. The soothing abyss of inebriation is far better than the sting of failure.
Sophie, Eddie’s wife, is not as egregious in her failings, but her misplaced love is still culpable in this unfolding drama. There is very little known about her in The Street Singer. She was once a dancer, but put her career on hold for love, which is also the case for Sylvia Speegel. The fact that Eddie was once an accountant suggests that she married for money, forgoing her passion as an artist. Only now that the economy has crashed, thereby rendering the accountant profession symbolically worthless, Sophie is caught in an abusive marriage that is consuming her physically (represented by her pregnancy) and emotionally (suggested by her torn affections). She acts as a counter balance to Sylvia, who married for love as well, only Sophie has yet to become her. Sophie, comparatively speaking, is the mold of clay that is not entirely inflicted with damage, and still salvageable despite her current condition, though the odds are continuously against her. Her fate is sealed however when Eddie fails to meet up with Sylvia, thereby condemning Sophie to continue her relationship with Eddie
Sylvia perhaps is the most tragic character of all, given that she is let down by Eddie, as well as put in a lurch by standing up Max, her talent scout. Yet her love is the most insidious of all, as she has given herself to two loves: idyllic “true” love and the love of fame. Sylvia chose her fate when she married her late husband, who decayed under the weight of alcoholism. It is unspecified what exactly drove him to the bottle, but, given that the diva is probably in her mid to late forties, it is possible World War I or Influenza had caused him to fall off the wagon. Beyond this, the reader isn’t given enough information. Sylvia’s love of fame hasn’t diminished either as she begins to make love to Eddie. In her moans, she affirms his star potential, but her passion betrays that her love of fame is wedded to her nostalgic yearnings for her glory days. Like a desperate parent forcing their terribly nonathletic children into every conceivable Boys and Girls Club affiliated after school sport program in an effort to relive the glory of youthful conquest, Sylvia so desperately wants to experience vicariously the fame and success she could have endured through Eddie. Her tenacity to lay claim to success is marked, enduring verbal molestation and offering herself sexually to a complete stranger. Eddie’s mortification at not remembering her address likely informs Sylvia’s off-screen reaction to getting stiffed by Eddie. His nonchalant return to singing, informs her likely reaction: to move on and once more enter into a destructive cycle fed by her yearnings for personal glory.
When Sylvia gives Eddie $20 to go buy a good pair of clothing, it should be noted that the approximate value of $20 in 1930 was close to $250. She was taking a chance, gambling with her future. The exchange of currency symbolizes much of what was going on prior to the stock market crash. Sylvia speculates the approximate worth of Eddie’s voice talent to be approximately $20 when she bequeaths him the money, and loses her investment. Eddie’s misappropriation of the funds is also interesting given that he spends 3/4ths of the money on alcohol at a speakeasy to dumb his sensory acuity. Sophie reacts with incredulity upon realizing that she was only given five dollars to purchase food for their newborn, but this symbolically demonstrates much of what was going on prior to the crash as well. Day traders who got lucky spent their earnings on opulence and not their futures. Rather than stable, dependable stocks, their greed got the better of them, investing in risky short term ventures. The result was a serious miscalculation that steamrolled across America causing one of the worst financial downturns in history. Eddie’s mistake, sadly, was not entirely out of the norm, but illustrates well the potential for The Street Singer to be a clever deconstruction of the fall of the glitzy, shallow fanfare that is so beloved in works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The bitter catharsis that culminates at the end of The Street Singer is not without its benefits. It is befitting for this particular narrative to be incorporated into the grander one that comprises The Contract with God, particularly because the story is a morality play among others. The tale uncovers the depth of human depravity, its antithesis informing what right course the key players could have acted out, had they the spines to do so. The Street Singer deters the get-rich-quick mentality that so often obscures our grander focus. Even good things, like love and prosperity, can be weapons against healthy motivation. So, like statistics, these stories exist to prove that what has been tried has failed, and that one ought not follow down the paths once traveled by fortune seekers. At the same time, the narrative also proves that some chances should be taken; Sylvia, Sophie, and Eddie all had the opportunity to become something bigger than themselves, but failed to execute their dreams and pursuits because of their unhealthy preoccupation with confounding loves. So let The Street Singer serve an an informative tale. Let it hover over the poor souls that hide on the corners. Let it remind all who read it that the state of the needy is never too far from the success of the prosperous.