Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser

Chapter XLV

Curious Shifts of the Poor

The gloomy Hurstwood, sitting in his cheap hotel, where he had taken refuge with seventy dollars — the price of his furniture — between him and nothing, saw a hot summer out and a cool fall in, reading. He was not wholly indifferent to the fact that his money was slipping away. As fifty cents after fifty cents were paid out for a day’s lodging he became uneasy, and finally took a cheaper room — thirty-five cents a day — to make his money last longer. Frequently he saw notices of Carrie. Her picture was in the “World” once or twice, and an old “Herald” he found in a chair informed him that she had recently appeared with some others at a benefit for something or other. He read these things with mingled feelings. Each one seemed to put her farther and farther away into a realm which became more imposing as it receded from him. On the billboards, too, he saw a pretty poster, showing her as the Quaker Maid, demure and dainty. More than once he stopped and looked at these, gazing at the pretty face in a sullen sort of way. His clothes were shabby, and he presented a marked contrast to all that she now seemed to be.

Somehow, so long as he knew she was at the Casino, though he had never any intention of going near her, there was a subconscious comfort for him — he was not quite alone. The show seemed such a fixture that, after a month or two, he began to take it for granted that it was still running. In September it went on the road and he did not notice it. When all but twenty dollars of his money was gone, he moved to a fifteen-cent lodging-house in the Bowery, where there was a bare lounging-room filled with tables and benches as well as some chairs. Here his preference was to close his eyes and dream of other days, a habit which grew upon him. It was not sleep at first, but a mental hearkening back to scenes and incidents in his Chicago life. As the present became darker, the past grew brighter, and all that concerned it stood in relief.

He was unconscious of just how much this habit had hold of him until one day he found his lips repeating an old answer he had made to one of his friends. They were in Fitzgerald and Moy’s. It was as if he stood in the door of his elegant little office, comfortably dressed, talking to Sagar Morrison about the value of South Chicago real estate in which the latter was about to invest.

“How would you like to come in on that with me?” he heard Morrison say.

“Not me,” he answered, just as he had years before. “I have my hands full now.”

The movement of his lips aroused him. He wondered whether he had really spoken. The next time he noticed anything of the sort he really did talk.

“Why don’t you jump, you bloody fool?” he was saying. “Jump!”

It was a funny English story he was telling to a company of actors. Even as his voice recalled him, he was smiling. A crusty old codger, sitting near by, seemed disturbed; at least, he stared in a most pointed way. Hurstwood straightened up. The humour of the memory fled in an instant and he felt ashamed. For relief, he left his chair and strolled out into the streets.

One day, looking down the ad. columns of the “Evening World,” he saw where a new play was at the Casino. Instantly, he came to a mental halt. Carrie had gone! He remembered seeing a poster of her only yesterday, but no doubt it was one left uncovered by the new signs. Curiously, this fact shook him up. He had almost to admit that somehow he was depending upon her being in the city. Now she was gone. He wondered how this important fact had skipped him. Goodness knows when she would be back now. Impelled by a nervous fear, he rose and went into the dingy hall, where he counted his remaining money, unseen. There were but ten dollars in all.

He wondered how all these other lodging-house people around him got along. They didn’t seem to do anything. Perhaps they begged — unquestionably they did. Many was the dime he had given to such as they in his day. He had seen other men asking for money on the streets. Maybe he could get some that way. There was horror in this thought.

Sitting in the lodging-house room, he came to his last fifty cents. He had saved and counted until his health was affected. His stoutness had gone. With it, even the semblance of a fit in his clothes. Now he decided he must do something, and, walking about, saw another day go by, bringing him down to his last twenty cents — not enough to eat for the morrow.

Summoning all his courage, he crossed to Broadway and up to the Broadway Central hotel. Within a block he halted, undecided. A big, heavy-faced porter was standing at one of the side entrances, looking out. Hurstwood purposed to appeal to him. Walking straight up, he was upon him before he could turn away.

“My friend,” he said, recognising even in his plight the man’s inferiority, “is there anything about this hotel that I could get to do?”

The porter stared at him the while he continued to talk.

“I’m out of work and out of money and I’ve got to get something, — it doesn’t matter what. I don’t care to talk about what I’ve been, but if you’d tell me how to get something to do, I’d be much obliged to you. It wouldn’t matter if it only lasted a few days just now. I’ve got to have something.”

The porter still gazed, trying to look indifferent. Then, seeing that Hurstwood was about to go on, he said:

“I’ve nothing to do with it. You’ll have to ask inside.”

Curiously, this stirred Hurstwood to further effort.

“I thought you might tell me.”

The fellow shook his head irritably.

Inside went the ex-manager and straight to an office off the clerk’s desk. One of the managers of the hotel happened to be there. Hurstwood looked him straight in the eye.

“Could you give me something to do for a few days?” he said. “I’m in a position where I have to get something at once.”

The comfortable manager looked at him, as much as to say: “Well, I should judge so.”

“I came here,” explained Hurstwood, nervously, “because I’ve been a manager myself in my day. I’ve had bad luck in a way but I’m not here to tell you that. I want something to do, if only for a week.”

The man imagined he saw a feverish gleam in the applicant’s eye.

“What hotel did you manage?” he inquired.

“It wasn’t a hotel,” said Hurstwood. “I was manager of Fitzgerald and Moy’s place in Chicago for fifteen years.”

“Is that so?” said the hotel man. “How did you come to get out of that?”

The figure of Hurstwood was rather surprising in contrast to the fact.

“Well, by foolishness of my own. It isn’t anything to talk about now. You could find out if you wanted to. I’m ‘broke’ now and, if you will believe me, I haven’t eaten anything today.”

The hotel man was slightly interested in this story. He could hardly tell what to do with such a figure, and yet Hurstwood’s earnestness made him wish to do something.

“Call Olsen,” he said, turning to the clerk.

In reply to a bell and a disappearing hall-boy, Olsen, the head porter, appeared.

“Olsen,” said the manager, “is there anything downstairs you could find for this man to do? I’d like to give him something.”

“I don’t know, sir,” said Olsen. “We have about all the help we need. I think I could find something, sir, though, if you like.”

“Do. Take him to the kitchen and tell Wilson to give him something to eat.”

“All right, sir,” said Olsen.

Hurstwood followed. Out of the manager’s sight, the head porter’s manner changed.

“I don’t know what the devil there is to do,” he observed.

Hurstwood said nothing. To him the big trunk hustler was a subject for private contempt.

“You’re to give this man something to eat,” he observed to the cook.

The latter looked Hurstwood over, and seeing something keen and intellectual in his eyes, said:

“Well, sit down over there.”

Thus was Hurstwood installed in the Broadway Central, but not for long. He was in no shape or mood to do the scrub work that exists about the foundation of every hotel. Nothing better offering, he was set to aid the fireman, to work about the basement, to do anything and everything that might offer. Porters, cooks, firemen, clerks — all were over him. Moreover his appearance did not please these individuals — his temper was too lonely — and they made it disagreeable for him.

With the stolidity and indifference of despair, however, he endured it all, sleeping in an attic at the roof of the house, eating what the cook gave him, accepting a few dollars a week, which he tried to save. His constitution was in no shape to endure.

One day the following February he was sent on an errand to a large coal company’s office. It had been snowing and thawing and the streets were sloppy. He soaked his shoes in his progress and came back feeling dull and weary. All the next day he felt unusually depressed and sat about as much as possible, to the irritation of those who admired energy in others.

In the afternoon some boxes were to be moved to make room for new culinary supplies. He was ordered to handle a truck. Encountering a big box, he could not lift it.

“What’s the matter there?” said the head porter. “Can’t you handle it?”

He was straining to lift it, but now he quit.

“No,” he said, weakly.

The man looked at him and saw that he was deathly pale.

“Not sick, are you?” he asked. “I think I am,” returned Hurstwood.

“Well, you’d better go sit down, then.”

This he did, but soon grew rapidly worse. It seemed all he could do to crawl to his room, where he remained for a day.

“That man Wheeler’s sick,” reported one of the lackeys to the night clerk.

“What’s the matter with him?”

“I don’t know. He’s got a high fever.”

The hotel physician looked at him.

“Better send him to Bellevue,” he recommended. “He’s got pneumonia.”

Accordingly, he was carted away.

In three weeks the worst was over, but it was nearly the first of May before his strength permitted him to be turned out. Then he was discharged.

No more weakly looking object ever strolled out into the spring sunshine than the once hale, lusty manager. All his corpulency had fled. His face was thin and pale, his hands white, his body flabby. Clothes and all, he weighed but one hundred and thirty-five pounds. Some old garments had been given him — a cheap brown coat and misfit pair of trousers. Also some change and advice. He was told to apply to the charities.

Again he resorted to the Bowery lodging-house, brooding over where to look. From this it was but a step to beggary.

“What can a man do?” he said. “I can’t starve.”

His first application was in sunny Second Avenue. A well-dressed man came leisurely strolling toward him out of Stuyvesant Park. Hurstwood nerved himself and sidled near.

“Would you mind giving me ten cents?” he said, directly. “I’m in a position where I must ask some one.”

The man scarcely looked at him, fished in his vest pocket and took out a dime.

“There you are,” he said.

“Much obliged,” said Hurstwood, softly, but the other paid no more attention to him.

Satisfied with his success and yet ashamed of his situation, he decided that he would only ask for twenty-five cents more, since that would be sufficient. He strolled about sizing up people, but it was long before just the right face and situation arrived. When he asked, he was refused. Shocked by this result, he took an hour to recover and then asked again. This time a nickel was given him. By the most watchful effort he did get twenty cents more, but it was painful.

The next day he resorted to the same effort, experiencing a variety of rebuffs and one or two generous receptions. At last it crossed his mind that there was a science of faces, and that a man could pick the liberal countenance if he tried.

It was no pleasure to him, however, this stopping of passers-by. He saw one man taken up for it and now troubled lest he should be arrested. Nevertheless, he went on, vaguely anticipating that indefinite something which is always better.

It was with a sense of satisfaction, then, that he saw announced one morning the return of the Casino Company, “with Miss Carrie Madenda.” He had thought of her often enough in days past. How successful she was — how much money she must have! Even now, however, it took a severe run of ill luck to decide him to appeal to her. He was truly hungry before he said:

“I’ll ask her. She won’t refuse me a few dollars.”

Accordingly, he headed for the Casino one afternoon, passing it several times in an effort to locate the stage entrance. Then he sat in Bryant Park, a block away, waiting. “She can’t refuse to help me a little,” he kept saying to himself.

Beginning with half-past six, he hovered like a shadow about the Thirty-ninth Street entrance, pretending always to be a hurrying pedestrian and yet fearful lest he should miss his object. He was slightly nervous, too, now that the eventful hour had arrived; but being weak and hungry, his ability to suffer was modified. At last he saw that the actors were beginning to arrive, and his nervous tension increased, until it seemed as if he could not stand much more.

Once he thought he saw Carrie coming and moved forward, only to see that he was mistaken.

“She can’t be long, now,” he said to himself, half fearing to encounter her and equally depressed at the thought that she might have gone in by another way. His stomach was so empty that it ached.

Individual after individual passed him, nearly all well dressed, almost all indifferent. He saw coaches rolling by, gentlemen passing with ladies — the evening’s merriment was beginning in this region of theatres and hotels.

Suddenly a coach rolled up and the driver jumped down to open the door. Before Hurstwood could act, two ladies flounced across the broad walk and disappeared in the stage door. He thought he saw Carrie, but it was so unexpected, so elegant and far away, he could hardly tell. He waited a while longer, growing feverish with want, and then seeing that the stage door no longer opened, and that a merry audience was arriving, he concluded it must have been Carrie and turned away.

“Lord,” he said, hastening out of the street into which the more fortunate were pouring, “I’ve got to get something.”

At that hour, when Broadway is wont to assume its most interesting aspect, a peculiar individual invariably took his stand at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Broadway — a spot which is also intersected by Fifth Avenue. This was the hour when the theatres were just beginning to receive their patrons. Fire signs announcing the night’s amusements blazed on every hand. Cabs and carriages, their lamps gleaming like yellow eyes, pattered by. Couples and parties of three and four freely mingled in the common crowd, which poured by in a thick stream, laughing and jesting. On Fifth Avenue were loungers — a few wealthy strollers, a gentleman in evening dress with his lady on his arm, some club-men passing from one smoking-room to another. Across the way the great hotels showed a hundred gleaming windows, their cafes and billiard-rooms filled with a comfortable, well-dressed, and pleasure-loving throng. All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration — the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.

This unique individual was no less than an ex-soldier turned religionist, who, having suffered the whips and privations of our peculiar social system, had concluded that his duty to the God which he conceived lay in aiding his fellow-man. The form of aid which he chose to administer was entirely original with himself. It consisted of securing a bed for all such homeless wayfarers as should apply to him at this particular spot, though he had scarcely the wherewithal to provide a comfortable habitation for himself. Taking his place amid this lightsome atmosphere, he would stand, his stocky figure cloaked in a great cape overcoat, his head protected by a broad slouch hat, awaiting the applicants who had in various ways learned the nature of his charity. For a while he would stand alone, gazing like any idler upon an ever-fascinating scene. On the evening in question, a policeman passing saluted him as “captain,” in a friendly way. An urchin who had frequently seen him before, stopped to gaze. All others took him for nothing out of the ordinary, save in the matter of dress, and conceived of him as a stranger whistling and idling for his own amusement.

As the first half-hour waned, certain characters appeared. Here and there in the passing crowds one might see, now and then, a loiterer edging interestedly near. A slouchy figure crossed the opposite corner and glanced furtively in his direction. Another came down Fifth Avenue to the corner of Twenty-sixth Street, took a general survey, and hobbled off again. Two or three noticeable Bowery types edged along the Fifth Avenue side of Madison Square, but did not venture over. The soldier, in his cape overcoat, walked a short line of ten feet at his corner, to and fro, indifferently whistling.

As nine o’clock approached, some of the hubbub of the earlier hour passed. The atmosphere of the hotels was not so youthful. The air, too, was colder. On every hand curious figures were moving — watchers and peepers, without an imaginary circle, which they seemed afraid to enter — a dozen in all. Presently, with the arrival of a keener sense of cold, one figure came forward. It crossed Broadway from out the shadow of Twenty-sixth Street, and, in a halting, circuitous way, arrived close to the waiting figure. There was something shamefaced or diffident about the movement, as if the intention were to conceal any idea of stopping until the very last moment. Then suddenly, close to the soldier, came the halt.

The captain looked in recognition, but there was no especial greeting. The newcomer nodded slightly and murmured something like one who waits for gifts. The other simply motioned to-ward the edge of the walk.

“Stand over there,” he said.

By this the spell was broken. Even while the soldier resumed his short, solemn walk, other figures shuffled forward. They did not so much as greet the leader, but joined the one, sniffling and hitching and scraping their feet.

“Gold, ain’t it?”

“I’m glad winter’s over.”

“Looks as though it might rain.”

The motley company had increased to ten. One or two knew each other and conversed. Others stood off a few feet, not wishing to be in the crowd and yet not counted out. They were peevish, crusty, silent, eying nothing in particular and moving their feet.

There would have been talking soon, but the soldier gave them no chance. Counting sufficient to begin, he came forward.

“Beds, eh, all of you?”

There was a general shuffle and murmur of approval.

“Well, line up here. I’ll see what I can do. I haven’t a cent myself.”

They fell into a sort of broken, ragged line. One might see, now, some of the chief characteristics by contrast. There was a wooden leg in the line. Hats were all drooping, a group that would ill become a second-hand Hester Street basement collection. Trousers were all warped and frayed at the bottom and coats worn and faded. In the glare of the store lights, some of the faces looked dry and chalky; others were red with blotches and puffed in the cheeks and under the eyes; one or two were rawboned and reminded one of railroad hands. A few spectators came near, drawn by the seemingly conferring group, then more and more, and quickly there was a pushing, gaping crowd. Some one in the line began to talk.

“Silence!” exclaimed the captain. “Now, then, gentlemen, these men are without beds. They have to have some place to sleep to-night. They can’t lie out in the streets. I need twelve cents to put one of them to bed. Who will give it to me?”

No reply.

“Well, we’ll have to wait here, boys, until some one does. Twelve cents isn’t so very much for one man.”

“Here’s fifteen,” exclaimed a young man, peering forward with strained eyes. “It’s all I can afford.”

“All right. Now I have fifteen. Step out of the line,” and seizing one by the shoulder, the captain marched him off a little way and stood him up alone.

Coming back, he resumed his place and began again.

“I have three cents left. These men must be put to bed somehow. There are” — counting — “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve men. Nine cents more will put the next man to bed; give him a good, comfortable bed for the night. I go right along and look after that myself. Who will give me nine cents?”

One of the watchers, this time a middle-aged man, handed him a five-cent piece.

“Now, I have eight cents. Four more will give this man a bed. Come, gentlemen. We are going very slow this evening. You all have good beds. How about these?”

“Here you are,” remarked a bystander, putting a coin into his hand.

“That,” said the captain, looking at the coin, “pays for two beds for two men and gives me five on the next one. Who will give me seven cents more?”

“I will,” said a voice.

Coming down Sixth Avenue this evening, Hurstwood chanced to cross east through Twenty-sixth Street toward Third Avenue. He was wholly disconsolate in spirit, hungry to what he deemed an almost mortal extent, weary, and defeated. How should he get at Carrie now? It would be eleven before the show was over. If she came in a coach, she would go away in one. He would need to interrupt under most trying circumstances. Worst of all, he was hungry and weary, and at best a whole day must intervene, for he had not heart to try again to-night. He had no food and no bed.

When he neared Broadway, he noticed the captain’s gathering of wanderers, but thinking it to be the result of a street preacher or some patent medicine fakir, was about to pass on. However, in crossing the street toward Madison Square Park, he noticed the line of men whose beds were already secured, stretching out from the main body of the crowd. In the glare of the neighbouring electric light he recognised a type of his own kind — the figures whom he saw about the streets and in the lodging-houses, drifting in mind and body like himself. He wondered what it could be and turned back.

There was the captain curtly pleading as before. He heard with astonishment and a sense of relief the oft-repeated words: “These men must have a bed.” Before him was the line of unfortunates whose beds were yet to be had, and seeing a newcomer quietly edge up and take a position at the end of the line, he decided to do likewise. What use to contend? He was weary to-night. It was a simple way out of one difficulty, at least. To-morrow, maybe, he would do better.

Back of him, where some of those were whose beds were safe, a relaxed air was apparent. The strain of uncertainty being removed, he heard them talking with moderate freedom and some leaning toward sociability. Politics, religion, the state of the government, some newspaper sensations, and the more notorious facts the world over, found mouthpieces and auditors there. Cracked and husky voices pronounced forcibly upon odd matters. Vague and rambling observations were made in reply.

There were squints, and leers, and some dull, ox-like stares from those who were too dull or too weary to converse.

Standing tells. Hurstwood became more weary waiting. He thought he should drop soon and shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. At last his turn came. The man ahead had been paid for and gone to the blessed line of success. He was now first, and already the captain was talking for him.

“Twelve cents, gentlemen — twelve cents puts this man to bed. He wouldn’t stand here in the cold if he had any place to go.”

Hurstwood swallowed something that rose to his throat. Hunger and weakness had made a coward of him.

“Here you are,” said a stranger, handing money to the captain.

Now the latter put a kindly hand on the ex-manager’s shoulder. “Line up over there,” he said.

Once there, Hurstwood breathed easier. He felt as if the world were not quite so bad with such a good man in it. Others seemed to feel like himself about this.

“Captain’s a great feller, ain’t he?” said the man ahead — a little, woebegone, helpless-looking sort of individual, who looked as though he had ever been the sport and care of fortune.

“Yes,” said Hurstwood, indifferently.

“Huh! there’s a lot back there yet,” said a man farther up, leaning out and looking back at the applicants for whom the captain was pleading.

“Yes. Must be over a hundred to-night,” said another.

“Look at the guy in the cab,” observed a third.

A cab had stopped. Some gentleman in evening dress reached out a bill to the captain, who took it with simple thanks and turned away to his line. There was a general craning of necks as the jewel in the white shirt front sparkled and the cab moved off. Even the crowd gaped in awe.

“That fixes up nine men for the night,” said the captain, counting out as many of the line near him. “Line up over there. Now, then, there are only seven. I need twelve cents.”

Money came slowly. In the course of time the crowd thinned out to a meagre handful. Fifth Avenue, save for an occasional cab or foot passenger, was bare. Broadway was thinly peopled with pedestrians. Only now and then a stranger passing noticed the small group, handed out a coin, and went away, unheeding.

The captain remained stolid and determined. He talked on, very slowly, uttering the fewest words and with a certain assurance, as though he could not fail.

“Come; I can’t stay out here all night. These men are getting tired and cold. Some one give me four cents.”

There came a time when he said nothing at all. Money was handed him, and for each twelve cents he singled out a man and put him in the other line. Then he walked up and down as before, looking at the ground.

The theatres let out. Fire signs disappeared. A clock struck eleven. Another half-hour and he was down to the last two men.

“Come, now,” he exclaimed to several curious observers; “eighteen cents will fix us all up for the night. Eighteen cents. I have six. Somebody give me the money. Remember, I have to go over to Brooklyn yet to-night. Before that I have to take these men down and put them to bed. Eighteen cents.”

No one responded. He walked to and fro, looking down for several minutes, occasionally saying softly: “Eighteen cents.” It seemed as if this paltry sum would delay the desired culmination longer than all the rest had. Hurstwood, buoyed up slightly by the long line of which he was a part, refrained with an effort from groaning, he was so weak.

At last a lady in opera cape and rustling skirts came down Fifth Avenue, accompanied by her escort. Hurstwood gazed wearily, reminded by her both of Carrie in her new world and of the time when he had escorted his own wife in like manner.

While he was gazing, she turned and, looking at the remarkable company, sent her escort over. He came, holding a bill in his fingers, all elegant and graceful.

“Here you are,” he said.

“Thanks,” said the captain, turning to the two remaining applicants. “Now we have some for tomorrow night,” he added.

Therewith he lined up the last two and proceeded to the head, counting as he went.

“One hundred and thirty-seven,” he announced. “Now, boys, line up. Right dress there. We won’t be much longer about this. Steady, now.”

He placed himself at the head and called out “Forward.” Hurstwood moved with the line. Across Fifth Avenue, through Madison Square by the winding paths, east on Twenty-third Street, and down Third Avenue wound the long, serpentine company. Midnight pedestrians and loiterers stopped and stared as the company passed. Chatting policemen, at various corners, stared indifferently or nodded to the leader, whom they had seen before. On Third Avenue they marched, a seemingly weary way, to Eighth Street, where there was a lodginghouse, closed, apparently, for the night. They were expected, however.

Outside in the gloom they stood, while the leader parleyed within. Then doors swung open and they were invited in with a “Steady, now.”

Some one was at the head showing rooms, so that there was no delay for keys. Toiling up the creaky stairs, Hurstwood looked back and saw the captain, watching; the last one of the line being included in his broad solicitude. Then he gathered his cloak about him and strolled out into the night.

“I can’t stand much of this,” said Hurstwood, whose legs ached him painfully, as he sat down upon the miserable bunk in the small, lightless chamber allotted to him. “I’ve got to eat, or I’ll die.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37