Karl Brußmann is a teenage immigrant living in New York after the fallout of a scandal with his housemaid in Germany. He meets a stoker for a ship who has also found himself in bad times, and struck by compassion, Brußmann attempts to right their situations by talking to the ship's captain. He accidentally meets a man, friends with the captain, who knows himself to be Brußmann's uncle. The uncle, Senator Jacob, tries to help the struggling teen, but the teen soon parts from him, encountering two drifters, Robinson and Delamarche.
The drifters steal from the boy, selling his clothes and eating his food and stealing his belongings. Karl flees the duo finding work in a hotel as a lift operator. But, Robinson finds him and compromises Karl's job security by visiting while drunk and asking the boy for money. Brußmann is once again compelled to help the pathetic drunkard and loses his job as a consequence.
Robinson and Karl go to live with the other drifter, Delamarche, whose abrasive and obese host, Brunelda captures Karl and makes him into her servant. Karl is offered the chance to stay there where at least there is job security, but instead flees again, this time toward Oklahoma as a worker for a theatre company. He changes his identity by calling himself Negro.