You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

12. Downtown

Mr. Jack had listened to his wife’s complaint with the serious attention which stories of her labours, trials, and adventures in the theatre always aroused in him. For, in addition to the immense pride which he took in his wife’s talent and success, he was like most rich men of his race, and particularly those who were living every day, as he was, in the glamorous, unreal, and fantastic world of speculation, strongly attracted by the glitter of the theatre.

The progress of his career during the forty years since he first came to New York had been away from the quieter, more traditional, and, as it now seemed to him, duller forms of social and domestic life, to those forms which were more brilliant and gay, filled with the constant excitement of new pleasures and sensations, and touched with a spice of uncertainty and menace. The life of his boyhood — that of his family, who for a hundred years had carried on a private banking business in a little town — now seemed to him impossibly stodgy. Not only its domestic and social activities, which went on as steadily and predictably as a clock from year to year, marked at punctual intervals by a ritual of dutiful visits and countervisits among relatives, but its business enterprise also, with its small and cautious transactions, now seemed paltry and uninteresting.

In New York he had moved on from speed to speed and from height to height, keeping pace with all the most magnificent developments in the furious city that roared in constantly increasing crescendo about him. Now, even in the world in which he lived by day, the feverish air of which he breathed into his lungs exultantly, there was a glittering, inflamed quality that was not unlike that of the night-time world of the theatre in which the actors lived.

At nine o’clock in the morning of every working day, Mr. Jack was hurled downtown to his office in a shining projectile of machinery, driven by a chauffeur who was a literal embodiment of New York in one of its most familiar aspects. As the driver prowled above his wheel, his dark and sallow face twisted bitterly by the sneer of his thin mouth, his dark eyes shining with an unnatural lustre like those of a man who is under the stimulation of a powerful drug, he seemed to be-and was — a creature which this furious city had created for its special uses. His tallowy flesh seemed to have been compacted, like that of millions of other men who wore grey hats and had faces of the same lifeless hue, out of a common city-substance — the universal grey stuff of pavements, buildings, towers, tunnels, and bridges. In his veins there seemed to flow and throb, instead of blood, the crackling electric current by which the whole city moved. It was legible in every act and gesture the man made. As his sinister figure prowled above the wheel, his eyes darting right and left, his hands guiding the powerful machine with skill and precision, grazing, cutting, flanking, shifting, insinuating, sneaking, and shooting the great car through all but impossible channels with murderous recklessness, it was evident that the unwholesome chemistry that raced in him was consonant with the great energy that was pulsing through all the arteries of the city.

Yet, to be driven downtown by this creature in this way seemed to increase Mr. Jack’s anticipation and pleasure in the day’s work that lay before him. He liked to sit beside his driver and watch him. The fellow’s eyes were now sly and cunning as a cat’s, now hard and black as basalt. His thin face pivoted swiftly right and left, now leering with crafty triumph as he snaked his car ahead round some cursing rival, now from the twisted corner of his mouth snarling out his hate loudly at other drivers or at careless pedestrians: “Guh-wan, ya screwy basted! Guh-wan!” He would growl more softly at the menacing figure of some hated policeman, or would speak to his master out of the corner of his bitter mouth, saying a few words of grudging praise for some policeman who had granted him privileges:

“Some of dem are all right,” he would say. “You know!”— with a constricted accent of his high, strained voice. “Dey’re not all basteds. Dis guy”— with a jerk of his head towards the policeman who had nodded and let him pass —“dis guy’s all right. I know him — sure! sure! — he’s a bruddeh of me sisteh-inlaw!”

The unnatural and unwholesome energy of his driver evoked in his master’s mind an image of the world he lived in that was theatrical and phantasmal. Instead of seeing himself as one man going to his work like countless others in the practical and homely light of day, he saw himself and his driver as two cunning and powerful men pitted triumphantly against the world; and the monstrous architecture of the city, the phantasmagoric chaos of its traffic, the web of the streets swarming with people, became for him nothing more than a tremendous backdrop for his own activities. All of this — the sense of menace, conflict, cunning, power, stealth, and victory, and, above everything else, the sense of privilege — added to Mr. Jack’s pleasure, and even gave him a heady joy as he rode downtown to work.

And the feverish world of speculation in which he worked, and which had now come to have this theatrical cast and colour, was everywhere sustained by this same sense of privilege. It was the privilege of men selected from the common run because of some mysterious intuition they were supposed to have — selected to live gloriously without labour or production, their profits mounting incredibly with every ticking of the clock, their wealth increased fabulously by a mere nod of the head or the shifting of a finger. This being so, it seemed to Mr. Jack, and, indeed, to many others at the time — for many who were not themselves members of this fortunate class envied those who were — it seemed, then, not only entirely reasonable but even natural that the whole structure of society from top to bottom should be honeycombed with privilege and dishonesty.

Mr. Jack knew, for example, that one of his chauffeurs swindled him constantly. He knew that every bill for petrol, oil, tyres, and overhauling was padded, that the chauffeur was in collusion with the garage owner for this purpose, and that he received a handsome percentage from him as a reward. Yet this knowledge did not disturb Mr. Jack. He actually got from it a degree of cynical amusement. Well aware of what was going on, he also knew that he could afford it, and somehow this gave him a sense of power and security. If he ever entertained any other attitude, it was to shrug his shoulders indifferently as he thought:

“Well, what of it? There’s nothing to be done about it. They all do it. If it wasn’t this fellow, it would be someone else.”

Similarly, he knew that some of the maids in his household were not above “borrowing” things and “forgetting” to return them. He was aware that various members of the police force as well as several red-necked firemen spent most of their hours of ease in his kitchen or in the maids’ sitting-room. He also knew that these guardians of the public peace and safety ate royally every night of the choicest dishes of his own table, and that their wants were cared for even before his family and his guests were served, and that his best whisky and his rarest wines were theirs for the taking.

But beyond an occasional burst of annoyance when he discovered that a case of real Irish whisky (with rusty sea-stained markings on the bottles to prove genuineness) had melted away almost overnight, a loss which roused his temper only because of the rareness of the thing lost, he said very little. When his wife spoke to him about such matters, as she occasionally did, in a tone of vague protest, saying: “Fritz, I’m sure those girls are taking things they have no right to. I think it’s perfectly dreadful, don’t you? What do you think we ought to do about it?”— his usual answer was to smile tolerantly, shrug, and show his palms.

It cost him a great deal of money to keep his family provided with shelter, clothing, service, food, and entertainment, but the fact that a considerable part of it was wasted or actually filched from him by his retainers caused him no distress whatever. All of this was so much of a piece with what went on every day in big business and high finance that he hardly gave it a thought. And his indifference was not the bravado of a man who felt that his world was trembling on the brink of certain ruin and who was recklessly making merry while he waited for the collapse. Quite the contrary. He gave tolerant consent to the extravagance and special privilege of those who were dependent on his bounty, not because he doubted, but because he felt secure. He was convinced that the fabric of his world was woven from threads of steel, and that the towering pyramid of speculation would not only endure, but would grow constantly greater. Therefore the defections of his servants were mere peccadillos, and didn’t matter.

In all these ways Mr. Frederick Jack was not essentially different from ten thousand other men of his class and position. In that time and place he would have been peculiar if these things had not been true of him. For these men were all the victims of an occupational disease — a kind of mass hypnosis that denied to them the evidence of their senses. It was a monstrous and ironic fact that the very men who had created this world in which every value was false and theatrical saw themselves, not as creatures tranced by fatal illusions, but rather as the most knowing, practical, and hard-headed men alive. They did not think of themselves as gamblers, obsessed by their own fictions of speculation, but as brilliant executives of great affairs who at every moment of the day “had their fingers on the pulse of the nation.” So when they looked about them and saw everywhere nothing but the myriad shapes of privilege, dishonesty, and self-interest, they were convinced that this was inevitably “the way things are”.

It was generally assumed that every man had his price, just as every woman had hers. And if, in any discussion of conduct, it was suggested to one of these hard-headed, practical men that So-and-So had acted as he did for motives other than those of total self-interest and calculating desire, that he had done thus and so because he would rather endure pain himself than cause it to others whom he loved, or was loyal because of loyalty, or could not be bought or sold for no other reason than the integrity of his own character — the answer of the knowing one would be to smile politely but cynically, shrug it off, and say:

“All right. But I thought you were going to be intelligent. Let’s talk of something else that we both understand.”

Such men could not realise that their own vision of human nature was distorted. They prided themselves on their “hardness” and fortitude and intelligence, which had enabled them to accept so black a picture of the earth with such easy tolerance. It was not until a little later that the real substance of their “hardness” and intelligence was demonstrated to them in terms which they could grasp. When the bubble of their unreal world suddenly exploded before their eyes, many of them were so little capable of facing harsh reality and truth that they blew their brains out or threw themselves from the high windows of their offices into the streets below. And of those who faced it and saw it through, many a one who had been plump, immaculate, and assured now shrank and withered into premature and palsied senility.

All that, however, was still in the future. It was very imminent, but they did not know it, for they had trained themselves to deny the evidence of their senses. In that mid-October of 1929 nothing could exceed their satisfaction and assurance. They looked about them and, like an actor, saw with their eyes that all was false, but since they had schooled themselves to accept falseness as normal and natural, the discovery only enhanced their pleasure in life.

The choicest stories which these men told each other had to do with some facet of human chicanery, treachery, and dishonesty. They delighted to match anecdotes concerning the delightful knaveries of their chauffeurs, maids, cooks, and bootleggers, telling of the way these people cheated them as one would describe the antics of a household pet.

Such stories also had a great success at the dinner-table. The ladies would listen with mirth which they made an impressive show of trying to control, and at the conclusion of the tale they would say: “I— think — that — is — simp-ly — price-less!” (uttered slowly and deliberately, as if the humour of the story was almost beyond belief), or: “Isn’t it incred-ible!” (spoken with a faint rising scream of laughter), or: “Stop! You know he didn’t!” (delivered with a ladylike shriek). They used all the fashionable and stereotyped phrases of people “responding” to an “amusing” anecdote, for their lives had become so sterile and savourless that laughter had gone out of them.

Mr. Jack had a story of his own, and he told it so well and so frequently that it went the rounds of all the best dinner-tables in New York.

A few years before, when he was still living in the old brownstone house on the West Side, his wife was giving one of the open-house patties which she gave every year to the members of the “group” theatre for which she worked. At the height of the gaiety, when the party was in full swing and the actors were swarming through the rooms, gorging themselves to their heart’s content on the bountiful food and drink, there was suddenly a great screaming of police sirens in the neighbourhood, and the sound of motors driven to their limit and approaching at top speed. The sirens turned into the street, and to the alarm of Mr. Jack and his guests, who now came crowding to the windows, a high-powered truck flanked by two motor-cycle policemen pulled up before the house and stopped. Immediately, the two policemen, whom Mr. Jack instantly recognised as friends of his maids, sprang to the ground, and in a moment more, with the assistance of several of their fellows who got out of the truck, they had lifted a great barrel from the truck and were solemnly rolling it across the pavement and up the stone steps into the house. This barrel, it turned out, was filled with beer. The police were contributing it to the party, to which they had been invited (for when the Jacks gave a party to their friends, the maids and cooks were also allowed to give a party to the policemen and firemen in the kitchen). Mr. Jack, moved by this act of friendship and generosity on the part of the police, desired to pay them for the trouble and expense the beer had cost them, but one of the policemen said to him:

“Forget about it, boss. It’s O.K. I tell you how it is,” he then said, lowering his voice to a tone of quiet and confidential intimacy. “Dis stuff don’t cost us nuttin’, see? Nah!” he vigorously declared. “It’s given to us. Sure! It’s a commission dey give us,” he added delicately, “for seein’ dat dere stuff goes troo O.K. See?”

Mr. Jack saw, and he told the story many times. For he was really a good and generous man, and an act like this, even when it came from those who had drunk royally at his expense for years and had consumed the value of a hundred barrels of beer, warmed and delighted him.

Thus, while he could not escape sharing the theatrical and false view of life which was prevalent everywhere about him, he had, along with that, as kind and liberal a spirit as one was likely to meet in the course of a day’s journey. Of this there was constant and repeated evidence. He would act instantly to help people in distress, and he did it again and again — for actors down on their luck, for elderly spinsters with schemes for the renovation of the stage that were never profitable, for friends, relatives, and superannuated domestics. In addition to this, he was a loving and indulgent father, lavishing gifts upon his only child with a prodigal hand.

And, strangely, for one who lived among all the constantly shifting visages of a feverish and unstable world, he had always held with tenacious devotion to one of the ancient traditions of his race — a belief in the sacred and inviolable stability of the family. Through this devotion, in spite of the sensational tempo of city life with its menace to every kind of security, he had managed to keep his family together. And this was really the strongest bond which now connected him with his wife. They had long since agreed to live their own individual lives, but they had joined together in a common effort to maintain the unity of their family. And they had succeeded. For this reason and on this ground Mr. Jack respected and had a real affection for his wife.

Such was the well-groomed man who was delivered to his place of business every morning by his speed-drunk and city-hardened chauffeur. And within a hundred yards of the place where he alighted from his car ten thousand other men much like him in dress and style, in their general beliefs, and even, perhaps, in kindness, mercy, and tolerance, were also descending from their thunderbolts and were moving into another day of legend, smoke, and fury.

Having been set down at their doors, they were shot up in swift elevators to offices in the clouds. There they bought, sold, and traded in an atmosphere fraught with frantic madness. This madness was everywhere about them all day long, and they themselves were aware of it. Oh, yes, they sensed it well enough. Yet they said nothing. For it was one of the qualities of this time that men should see and feel the madness all round them and never mention it — never admit it even to themselves.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30