You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

29. “The Hollow Men”

Fox picks up the paper and settles back to read it with keen relish. The paper is the Times. (He read the Tribune late last night: waited up for it, would not miss it, has never missed it, could not sleep if he had not read it.) Morning now, Fox reads the Times.

How does he read the Times?

He reads it the way Americans have always read the paper. He also reads it as few Americans have ever read the paper — with nostrils sensitive, dilating with proud scorn, sniffing for the news behind the news.

He loves it — even loves the Times— loves Love unlovable — and don’t we all? Ink-fresh papers, millions of them — ink-fresh with morning, orange juice, waffles, eggs and bacon, and cups of strong hot coffee. How fine it is, here in America, at ink-fresh, coffee-fragrant morning, to read the paper!

How often have we read the paper in America! How often have we seen it blocked against our doors! Little route-boys fold and block it, so to throw it — and so we find it and unfold it, crackling and ink-laden, at our doors. Sometimes we find it tossed there lightly with flat plop; sometimes we find it thrown with solid, whizzing whack against the clapboards (clapboards here, most often, in America); sometimes, as now in Turtle Bay, servants find just freshly folded sheets laid neatly down in doorways, and take them to the table for their masters. No matter how it got there, we always find it.

How we do love the paper in America! How we do love the paper, all!

Why do we love the paper in America? Why do we love the paper, all?

Mad masters, I will tell ye why.

Because the paper is “the news” here in America, and we love the smell of news. We love the smell of news that’s “fit to print”. We also love the smell of news not fit to print. We love, besides, the smell of facts that news is made of. Therefore we love the paper because the news is so fit-printable — so unprintable — and so fact-printable.

Is the news, then, like America? No, it’s not — and Fox, unlike the rest of you, mad masters, turns the pages knowing it is just the news and not America that he reads there in his Times.

The news is not America, nor is America the news— the news is in America. It is a kind of light at morning, and at evening, and at midnight in America. It is a kind of growth and record and excrescence of our life. It is not good enough — it does not tell our story — yet it is the news!

Fox reads (proud nose sharp-sniffing with a scornful relish):

An unidentified man fell or jumped yesterday at noon from the twelfth storey of the Admiral Francis Drake Hotel, corner of Hay and Apple Streets, in Brooklyn. The man, who was about thirty-five years old, registered at the hotel about a week ago, according to the police, as C. Green. Police are of the opinion that this was an assumed name. Pending identification, the body is being held at the King’s County Morgue.

This, then, is news. Is it also the whole story, Admiral Drake? No! Yet we do not supply the whole story — we who have known all the lights and weathers of America — as Fox supplies it now:

Well, then, it’s news, and it happened in your own hotel, brave Admiral Drake. It didn’t happen in the Penn–Pitt at Pittsburgh, nor the Phil–Penn at Philadelphia, nor the York–Albany at Albany, nor the Hudson–Troy at Troy, nor the Libya–Ritz at Libya Hill, nor the Clay–Calhoun at Columbia, nor the Richmond–Lee at Richmond, nor the George Washington at Easton, Pennsylvania, Canton, Ohio, Terre Haute, Indiana, Danville, Virginia, Houston, Texas, and ninety-seven other places; nor at the Abraham Lincoln at Springfield, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, Wilmington, Delaware, Cairo, Illinois, Kansas City, Missouri, Los Angeles, California, and one hundred and thirty-six other towns; nor at the Andrew Jackson, the Roosevelt (Theodore or Franklin — take your choice), the Jefferson Davis, the Daniel Webster, the Stonewall Jackson, the U.S. Grant, the Commodore Vanderbilt, the Waldorf–Astor, the Adams House, the Parker House, the Palmer House, the Taft, the McKinley, the Emerson (Waldo or Bromo), the Harding, the Coolidge, the Hoover, the Albert G. Fall, the Harry Daugherty, the Rockefeller, the Harriman, the Carnegie or the Frick, the Christopher Columbus or the Leif Ericsson, the Ponce-deLeon or the Magellan, in the remaining eight hundred and forty-three cities of America — but at the Francis Drake, brave Admiral — your own hotel — so, of course, you’ll want to know what happened.

“An unidentified man”— well, then, this man was an American. “About thirty-five years old” with “an assumed name”— well, then, call him C. Green as he called himself ironically in the hotel register. C. Green, the unidentified American, “fell or jumped,” then, “yesterday at noon . . . in Brooklyn”— worth nine lines of print in today’s Times— one of seven thousand who died yesterday upon this continent — one of three hundred and fifty who died yesterday in this very city (see dense, close columns of obituaries, page 15: begin with “Aaronson”, so through the alphabet to “Zorn”). C. Green came here “a week ago”——

And came from where? From the deep South, or the Mississippi Valley, or the Middle West? From Minneapolis, Bridgeport, Boston, or a little town in Old Catawba? From Scranton, Toledo, St. Louis, or the desert whiteness of Los Angeles? From the pine barrens of the Atlantic coastal plain, or from the Pacific shore?

And so — was what, brave Admiral Drake? Had seen, felt, heard, smelled, tasted —what? Had known —what?

Had known all our brutal violence of weather: the burned swelter of July across the nation, the smell of the slow, rank river, the mud, the bottom lands, the weed growth, and the hot, coarse, humid fragrance of the corn. The kind that says: “Jesus, but it’s hot!”— pulls off his coat, and mops his face, and goes in shirt-sleeves in St. Louis, goes to August’s for a Swiss on rye with mustard, and a mug of beer. The kind that says: “Damn! It’s hot!” in South Carolina, slouches in shirt-sleeves and straw hat down South Main Street, drops into Evans Drug Store for a dope, says to the soda jerker: “Is it hot enough fer you today, Jim?” The kind that reads in the paper of the heat, the deaths, and the prostration, reads it with a certain satisfaction, hangs on grimly day by day and loses sleep at night, can’t sleep for heat, is tired in the morning, says: “Jesus! It can’t last for ever!” as heat lengthens into August, and the nation gasps for breath, and the green that was young in May now mottles, fades and bleaches, withers, goes heat-brown. Will boast of coolness in the mountains, Admiral Drake. “Always cool at night! May get a little warm around the middle of the day, but you’ll sleep with blankets every night.”

Then summer fades and passes, and October comes. Will smell smoke then, and feel an unsuspected sharpness, a thrill of nervous, swift elation, a sense of sadness and departure. C. Green doesn’t know the reason, Admiral Drake, but lights slant and shorten in the afternoon, there is a misty pollen of old gold in light at noon, a murky redness in the lights of dusk, a frosty stillness, and the barking of the dogs; the maples flame upon the hills, the gums are burning, bronze the oak leaves and, the aspens yellow; then come the rains, the sodden dead-brown of the fallen leaves, the smoke-stark branches — and November comes.

Waiting for winter in the little towns, and winter comes. It is really the same in big towns and the cities, too, with the bleak enclosure of the winter multiplied. In the commerce of the day, engaged and furious, then darkness, and the bleak monotony of “Where shall we go? What shall we do?” The winter grips us, closes round each house — the stark, harsh light encysts us — and C. Green walks the streets. Sometimes hard lights burn on him, Admiral Drake, bleak faces stream beneath the lights, amusement signs are winking. On Broadway, the constant plaze of sterile lights; in little towns, no less, the clustered raisins of hard light on Main Street. On Broadway, swarming millions up to midnight; in little towns, hard lights and frozen silence — no one, nothing, after ten o’clock. But in the hearts of C. Greens everywhere, bleak boredom, undefined despair, and “Christ! Where shall I go now? When will winter end?”

So longs for spring, and wishes it were Saturday, brave Admiral Drake.

Saturday night arrives with the thing that we are waiting for. Oh, it will come to-night; the thing that we have been expecting all our lives will come to-night, on Saturday! ‘On Saturday night across America we are waiting for it, and ninety million Greens go moth-wise to the lights to find it. Surely it will come to-night! So Green goes out to find it, and he finds — hard lights again, saloons along Third Avenue, or the Greek’s place in a little town — and then hard whisky, gin, and drunkenness, and brawls and fights and vomit.

Sunday morning, aching head.

Sunday afternoon, and in the cities the chop-suey signs wink on and flash their sterile promises of unborn joy.

Sunday night, and the hard stars, and the bleak enclosures of our wintry weather — the buildings of old rusty brick, in cold enclosed, the fronts of old stark brown, the unpainted houses, the deserted factories, wharves, piers, warehouses, and office buildings, the tormented shabbiness of Sixth Avenues; and in the smaller towns, bleak Main Streets, desolate with shabby store fronts and beraisined clusters of lamp standards, and in the residential streets of wooden houses (dark by ten o’clock), the moaning of stark branches, the stiff lights, limb-bepatterned, shaking at street corners. The light shines there with wintry bleakness on the clapboard front and porch of a shabby house where the policeman lives — blank and desolate upon the stuffy, boxlike little parlour where the policeman’s daughter amorously receives — and almost— not quite— gives. Hot, fevered, fearful, and insatiate, it is all too close to the cold street light — too creaking, panting, flimsy-close to others in the flimsy house — too close to the policeman’s solid and slow-creaking tread — yet somehow valiant, somehow strong, somehow triumphant over the stale varnish of the little parlour, the nearness of the street, the light, the creaking boughs, and papa’s tread — somehow triumphant with hot panting, with rose lips and tender tongue, white underleg and tight-locked thighs — by these intimacies of fear and fragrant hot desire will beat the ashen monotone of time and even the bleak and grey duration of the winter out.

Does this surprise you, Admiral Drake?

“But Christ!”— Green leaves the house, his life is bitter with desire, the stiff light creaks. “When will it end?” thinks Green. “When will spring come?”

It comes at last unhoped for, after hoping, comes when least expected, and when given up. In March there is a day that’s almost spring, and C. Green, strong with will to have it so, says: “Well, it’s here”— and it is gone like smoke. You can’t look spring too closely in the eye in March. Raw days return, and blown light, and gusty moanings of the wind. Then April comes, and small, soaking rain. The air is wet and raw and chilled, but with a smell of spring now, a smell of earth, of grass exploding in small patches, here and there a blade, a bud, a leaf. And spring comes, marvellous, for a day or two —“It’s here!” Green thinks. “It’s here at last!”— and he is wrong again. It goes, chill days and greyness and small, soaking rains return. Green loses hope. “There is no spring!” he says. “You never get spring any more; you jump from winter into summer — we’ll have summer now and the hot weather before you know it.”

Then spring comes — explodes out of the earth in a green radiance — comes up overnight! It’s April twenty-eighth — the tree there in the city backyard is smoke-yellow, feathered with the striplings of young leaf! It’s April twenty-ninth — the leaf, the yellow, and the smoke have thickened overnight. April thirtieth — you can watch it grow and thicken with your eye! Then May the first — the tree’s in leaf now, almost full and dense, young, feather-fresh! The whole spring has exploded from the earth!

All’s explosive with us really, Admiral Drake — spring, the brutal summer, frost, October, February in Dakota with fifty-one below, spring floods, two hundred drowning along Ohio bottoms, in Missouri, in New England, all through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee. Spring shot at us overnight, and everything with us is vast, explosive, floodlike. A few hundred dead in floods, a hundred in a wave of heat, twelve thousand in a year by murder, thirty thousand with the motor-car — it all means nothing here. Floods like this would drown out France; death like this would plunge England in black mourning; but in America a few thousand C. Greens more or less, drowned, murdered, killed by motor-cars, or dead by jumping out of windows on their heads — well, it just means nothing to us — the next flood, or next week’s crop of death and killings, wash it out. We do things on a large scale, Admiral Drake.

The tar-smell in the streets now, children shouting, and the smell of earth; the sky shell-blue and faultless, a sapphire sparkle everywhere; and in the air the brave stick-candy whippings of a flag. C. Green thinks of the baseball games, the raw-hide arm of Lefty Grove, the resilient crack of ashwood on the horsehide ball, the waiting pockets of the well-oiled mitts, the warm smell of the bleachers, the shouted gibes of shirt-sleeved men, the sprawl and monotone of inning after inning. (Baseball’s a dull game, really; that’s the reason that it is so good. We do not love the game so much as we love the sprawl and drowse and shirt-sleeved apathy of it.) On Saturday afternoon, C. Green goes out to the ball park and sits there in the crowd, awaiting the sudden sharpness and the yell of crisis. Then the game ends and the crowd flows out across the green turf of the playing-field. Sunday, Green spends the day out in the country in his flivver, with a girl.

Then summer comes again, heat-blazing summer, humid, murked with mist, sky-glazed with brutal weariness — and C. Green mops his face and sweats and says: “Jesus! Will it never end?”

This, then, is C. Green “thirty-five years old”—“unidentified”— and an American. In what way an American? In what way different from the men you knew, old Drake?

When the ships bore home again and Cape St. Vincent blazed in Spaniard’s eye — or when old Drake was returning with his men, beating coastwise from strange seas abreast, past the Scilly Isles towards the slant of evening fields, chalk cliffs, the harbour’s arms, the town’s sweet cluster and the spire — where was Green?

When, in red-oak thickets at the break of day, coon-skinned, the huntsmen of the wilderness lay for bear, heard arrows rattling in the laurel leaves, the bullets’ whining plunk, and waited with cocked musket by the tree — where was Green?

Or when, with strong faces turning towards the setting sun, hawk-eyed and Indian-visaged men bore gun-stocks on the western trails and sternly heard the fierce war-whoops around the Painted Buttes — where, then, was Green?

Was never there with Drake’s men in the evening when the sails stood in from the Americas! Was never there beneath the Spaniard’s swarthy eye at Vincent’s Cape! Was never there in the red-oak thicket in the morning! Was never there to hear the war-cries round the Painted Buttes!

No, no. He was no voyager of unknown seas, no pioneer of western trails. He was life’s little man, life’s nameless cypher, life’s man-swarm atom, life’s American — and now he lies disjected and exploded on a street in Brooklyn!

He was a dweller in mean streets, was Green, a man-mote in the jungle of the city, a resident of grimy steel and stone, a mole who burrowed in rusty brick, a stunned spectator of enormous salmon-coloured towers, hued palely with the morning. He was a renter of shabby wooden houses in a little town, an owner of a raw new bungalow on the outskirts of the town. He was a waker in bleak streets at morning, an alarm-clock watcher, saying: “Jesus, I’ll be late.”— a fellow who took short cuts through the corner lot, behind the advertising signs; a fellow used to concrete horrors of hot day and blazing noon; a man accustomed to the tormented hodge-podge of our architectures, used to broken pavements, ash-cans, shabby store fronts, dull green paint, the elevated structure, grinding traffic, noise, and streets betortured with a thousand bleak and dismal signs. He was accustomed to the gas tanks going out of town, he was an atom of machinery in an endless flow, going, stopping, going to the winking of the lights; he tore down concrete roads on Sundays, past the hot-dog stands and filling-stations; he would return at darkness; hunger lured him to the winking splendour of chop-suey signs; and midnight found him in The Coffee Pot, to prowl above a mug of coffee, tear a coffee-cake in fragments, and wear away the slow grey ash of time and boredom with other men in grey hats and with skins of tallow-grey, at Joe the Greek’s.

C. Green could read (which Drake could not), but not too accurately; could write, too (which the Spaniard couldn’t), but not too well. C. Green had trouble over certain words, spelled them out above the coffee mug at midnight, with a furrowed brow, slow-shaping lips, and “Jesus!” when news stunned him — for he read the news. Preferred the news with pictures, too, girls with voluptuous legs crossed sensually, dresses above the knees, and plump dolls’ faces full of vacant lechery. Green liked news “hot”— not as Fox knows it, not subtly sniffing with strange-scornful nostrils for the news behind the news — but straight from the shoulder — socko! — biff! — straight off the griddle, with lots of mustard, shapely legs, roadside wrecks and mutilated bodies, gangsters’ molls and gunmen’s hideouts, tallow faces of the night that bluntly stare at flashlight lenses — this and talk of “heart-balm”, “love-thief”, “sex-hijacker”— all of this liked Green.

Yes, Green liked the news — and now, a bit of news himself (nine lines of print in Times), has been disjected and exploded on a Brooklyn pavement!

Well, such was our friend, C. Green, who read, but not too well; and wrote, but not too easily; who smelled, but not too strongly; felt, but not too deeply; saw, but not too clearly — yet had smelled the tar in May, smelled the slow, rank yellow of the rivers, and the clean, coarse corn; had seen the slants of evening on the hill-flanks in the Smokies, and the bronze swell of the earth, the broad, deep red of Pennsylvania barns, proud-proportioned and as dominant across the fields as bulls; had felt the frost and silence in October; had heard the whistles of the train wail back in darkness, and the horns of New Year’s Eve, and —“Jesus! There’s another year gone by! What now?”

No Drake was he, no Spaniard, no coon-skin cap, no strong face burning west. Yet, in some remote and protoplasmic portion, he was a little of each of these. A little Scotch, perhaps, was Green, a little Irish, English, Spanish even, and some German — a little of each part, all compacted and exploded into nameless atom of America!

No. Green — poor little Green — was not a man like Drake. He was just a cinder out of life — for the most part, a thinker of base thoughts, a creature of unsharpened, coarse perceptions. He was meagre in the hips, he did not have much juice or salt in him. Drake gnawed the beef from juicy bones in taverns, drank tankards of brown ale, swore salty curses through his whiskers, wiped his mouth with the back of his hard hand, threw the beef bone to his dog, and pounded with his tankard for more ale. Green ate in cafeterias, prowled at midnight over coffee and a doughnut or a sugar-coated bun, went to the chop-suey joint on Saturday nights and swallowed chow mein, noodle soup, and rice. Green’s mouth was mean and thin and common, it ran to looseness and a snarl; his skin was grey and harsh and dry; his eyes were dull and full of fear. Drake was self-contained: the world his oyster, seas his pastures, mighty distances his wings. His eyes were sea-pale (like the eyes of Fox); his ship was England. Green had no ship, he had a motor-car, and tore down concrete roads on Sunday, and halted with the lights against him with the million other cinders hurtling through hot space. Green walked on level concrete sidewalks and on pavements grey, through hot and grimy streets past rusty tenements. Drake set his sails against the west, he strode the buoyant, sea-washed decks, he took the Spaniard and his gold, and at the end he stood in to the sweet enfoldments of the spire, the clustered town, the emerald fields that slope to Plymouth harbour — then Green came!

We who never saw brave Drake can have no difficulty conjuring up an image of the kind of man he was. With equal ease we can imagine the bearded Spaniard, and almost hear his swarthy oaths. But neither Drake nor Spaniard could ever have imagined Green. Who could have foreseen him, this cypher of America, exploded now upon a street in Brooklyn?

Behold him, Admiral Drake! Observe the scene now! Listen to the people! Here is something strange as the Armadas, the gold-laden cargoes of the bearded Spaniards, the vision of unfound Americas!

What do you see here, Admiral Drake?

Well, first, a building — your own hotel — such a building as the folk of Plymouth never saw. A great block of masonry, pale-hued, grimy-white, fourteen storeys tall, stamped in an unvarying pattern with many windows. Sheeted glass below, the store front piled with medicines and toilet articles, perfumes, cosmetics, health contrivances. Within, a soda fountain, Admiral Drake. The men in white with monkey caps, soda jerkers sullen with perpetual overdriven irritation. Beneath the counter, pools of sloppy water, filth, and unwashed dishes. Across the counter, Jewesses with fat, rouged lips consuming ice-cream sodas and pimento sandwiches.

Outside upon the concrete sidewalk lies the form of our exploded friend, C. Green. A crowd has gathered round — taxi-drivers, passersby, hangers-on about the subway station, people working in the neighbourhood, and the police. No one has dared to touch exploded Green as yet — they stand there in a rapt and fascinated circle, looking at him.

Not much to look at either, Admiral Drake; not even those who trod your gory decks would call the sight a pretty one. Our friend has landed on his head —“taken a nose dive”, as we say — and smashed his brains out at the iron base of the second lamp-post from the corner. (It is the same lamp-post as heretofore described, to be found throughout America — a “standard”, standardised, supporting five hard grapes of frosted glass.)

So here Green lies, on the concrete sidewalk all disjected. No head is left, the head is gone now, head’s exploded; only brains are left. The brains are pink, and almost bloodless, Admiral Drake. (There’s not much blood here — we shall tell you why.) But brains exploded are somewhat like pale sausage meat, fresh-ground. Brains are stuck hard to the lamp-post, too; there is a certain driven emphasis about them, as if they had been shot hydraulically out of a force-hose against the post.

The head, as we have said, is gone completely; a few fragments of the skull are scattered round — but of the face, the features, forehead — nothing! They have all been blown out, as by some inner explosion. Nothing is left but the back of the skull, which curiously remains, completely hollowed out and vacant, and curved over, like the rounded handle of a walking-stick.

The body, five feet eight or nine of it, of middling weight, is lying — we were going to say “face downwards”; had we not better say “stomach downwards”? — on the sidewalk. It is well-dressed, too, in cheap, neatly pressed, machine-made clothes: tan shoes and socks with a clocked pattern, suit of a light texture, brownish-red in hue, a neat canary-coloured shirt with attached collar — obviously C. Green had a nice feeling for proprieties! As for the body itself, save for a certain indefinable and curiously “disjected” quality, one could scarcely tell that every bone in it is broken. The hands are still spread out, half-folded and half-clenched, with a still-warm and startling eloquence of recent life. (It happened just four minutes ago!)

Well, where’s the blood, then, Drake? You’re used to blood; you’d like to know. Well, you’ve heard of casting bread upon the waters, Drake, and having it return — but never yet, I’ll vow, of casting blood upon the streets — and having it run away — and then come back to you! But here it comes now, down the street — down Apple Street, round the corner into Hay, across the street now towards C. Green, the lamp-post, and the crowd! — a young Italian youth, blunt-featured, low-browed, and bewildered, his black eyes blank with horror, tongue mumbling thickly, arm held firmly by a policeman, suit and shirt all drenched with blood, and face bespattered with it! A stir of sudden interest in the crowd, sharp nudges, low-toned voices whispering:

“Here he is! Th’ guy that ‘got it’! . . . Sure, that’s him — you know him, that Italian kid that works inside in the news-stand — he was standin’ deh beside the post! Sure, that’s the guy! — talkin’ to another guy — he got it all! That’s the reason you didn’t see more blood —this guy got it! — Sure! The guy just missed him by six inches! — Sure! I’m tellin’ you I saw it, ain’t I? I looked up an’ saw him in the air! He’d a hit this guy, but when he saw that he was goin’ to hit the lamp-post, he put out his hands an’ tried to keep away! That’s the reason that he didn’t hit this guy! . . . But this guy heard him when he hit, an’ turned round — and zowie! — he got all of it right in his face!”

And another, whispering and nudging, nodding towards the horror-blank, thick-mumbling Italian boy: “Jesus! Look at th’ guy, will yuh! . . . He don’t know what he’s doing! . . . He don’t know yet what happened to him! . . . Sure! He got it all. I tell yuh! He was standin’ deh beside the post, wit a package undehneath one ahm — an’ when it happened — when he got it — he just stahted runnin’ . . . He don’t know yet what’s happened! . . . That’s what I’m tellin’ yuh — th’ guy just stahted runnin’ when he got it.”

And one policeman (to another): “ . . . Sure, I yelled to Pat to stop him. He caught up with him at Borough Hall . . . He just kept on runnin’— he don’t know yet what happened to him.”

And the Italian youth, thick-mumbling: “ . . . Jeez! W’at happened? . . . Jeez! . . . I was standin’ talkin’ to a guy — I heard it hit . . . Jeez! . . . W’at happened, anyway? . . . I got it all oveh me! . . . Jeez! . . . I just stahted runnin’ . . . Jeez! I’m sick!”

Voices: “Here, take ’im into the drug-store! . . . Wash ’im off! . . . That guy needs a shot of liquor! . . . Sure! Take him into the drug-stoeh deh! . . . They’ll fix him up!”

The plump, young, rather effeminate, but very intelligent young Jew who runs the news-stand in the corridor, talking to everyone round him, excitedly and indignantly: “ . . . Did I see it? Listen! I saw everything! I was coming across the street, looked up, and saw him in the air! . . . See it? . . . Listen! If someone had taken a big ripe water-melon and dropped it on the street from the twelfth floor you’d have some idea what it was like! . . . See it! I’ll tell the world I saw it! I don’t want to see anything like that again!” Then excitedly, with a kind of hysterical indignation: “Shows no consideration for other people, that’s all I’ve got to say! If a man is going to do a thing like that, why does he pick a place like this— one of the busiest corners in Brooklyn? . . . How did he know he wouldn’t hit someone? Why, if that boy had been standing six inches nearer to the post, he’d have killed him, as sure as you live! . . . And here he does it right in front of all these people who have to look at it! It shows he had no consideration for other people! A man who’d do a thing like that . . . ”

(Alas, poor Jew! As if C. Green, now past considering, had considered nice “considerations”.)

A taxi-driver, impatiently: “That’s what I’m tellin’ yuh! . . . I watched him for five minutes before he jumped. He crawled out on the window-sill an’ stood there for five minutes, makin’ up his mind! . . . Sure, I saw him! Lots of people saw him!” Impatiently, irritably:—“Why didn’t we do somethin’ to stop him? F’r Chri’ sake, what was there to do? A guy who’d do a thing like that is nuts to start with! You don’t think he’d listen to anything we had to say, do you? . . . Sure, we did yell at him! . . . Jesus! . . . We was almost afraid to yell at him — we made motions to him to get back — tried to hold his attention while the cops sneaked round the corner into the hotel . . . Sure, the cops got there just a second after he jumped — I don’t know if he jumped when he heard ’em comin’, or what happened, but Christ! — he stood there gettin’ ready for five minutes while we watched!”

And a stocky little Czech–Bohemian, who works in the delicatessen-fruit store on the corner, one block down: “Did I hear it! Say, you could have heard it for six blocks! Sure! Everybody heard it! The minute that I heard it, I knew what had happened, too! I come runnin’!”

People press and shuffle in the crowd. A man comes round the corner, presses forward to get a better look, runs into a-little fat, baldheaded man in front of him who is staring at the Thing with a pale, sweating, suffering, fascinated face, by accident knocks off the little’ fat man’s straw hat. The new straw hat hits the pavement dryly, the little fat, bald-headed man scrambles for it, clutches it, and turns round on the man who has knocked it off, both of them stammering frantic apologies:

“Oh, excuse me! . . . ‘Scuse me! . . . ‘Scuse me! . . . Sorry!”

“Quite all right . . . All right! . . . All right.”

Observe now, Admiral, with what hypnotic concentration the people are examining the grimy-white facade of your hotel. Watch their faces and expressions. Their eyes go travelling upwards slowly — up — up — up. The building seems to widen curiously, to be distorted, to flare out wedgelike till it threatens to annihilate the sky, overwhelm the will, and crush the spirit. (These optics, too, American, Admiral Drake.) The eyes continue on past storey after storey up the wall until they finally arrive and come to rest with focal concentration on that single open window twelve floors up. It is no jot different from all the other windows, but now the vision of the crowd is fastened on it with a fatal and united interest. And after staring at it fixedly, the eyes come travelling slowly down again — down — down — down — the faces strained a little, mouths all slightly puckered as if something set the teeth on edge — and slowly, with fascinated measurement — down — down — down — until the eyes reach sidewalk, lamp-post, and — the Thing again.

The pavement finally halts all, stops all, answers all. It is the American pavement, Admiral Drake, our universal city sidewalk, a wide, hard stripe of grey-white cement, blocked accurately with dividing lines. It is the hardest, coldest, cruellest, most impersonal pavement in the world: all of the indifference, the atomic desolation, the exploded nothingness of one hundred million nameless “Greens” is in it.

In Europe, Drake, we find worn stone, all hollowed out and rubbed to rounded edges. For centuries the unknown lives of men now buried touched and wore this stone, and when we see it something stirs within our hearts, and something strange and dark and passionate moves our souls, and —“They were here!” we say.

Not so, the streets, the sidewalks, the paved places of America. Has man been here? No. Only unnumbered nameless Greens have swarmed and passed here, and none has left a mark.

Did ever the eye go seaward here with searching for the crowded sail, with longing for the strange and unknown coasts of Spain? Did ever beauty here come home to the heart and eyes? Did ever, in the thrusting crowd, eye look to eye, and face to face, and heart to heart, and know the moment of their meeting — stop and pause, and be oblivious in this place, and make one spot of worn pavement sacred stone? You won’t believe it, Admiral Drake, but it is so — these things have happened on the pavements of America. But, as you see yourself, they have not left their mark.

You, old Drake, when last your fellow townsmen saw you at the sailing of the ships, walked with the crowd along the quay, past the spire and cluster of the town, down to the cool lap of the water; and from your deck, as you put out, you watched the long, white, fading arm of your own coast. And in the town that you had left were streets still haunted by your voice. There was your worn tread upon the pavement, there the tavern table dented where you banged your tankard down. And in the evening, when the ships were gone, men waited for your return.

But no return is here among us in America. Here are no streets still haunted by departed men. Here is no street at all, as you knew streets. Here are just our cement Mobways, unannealed by time! No place in Mobway bids you pause, old Drake. No spot in Mob-way bids you hold your mind a moment in reflection, saying: “He was here!” No square of concrete slab says: “Stay, for I was built by men.” Mobway never knew the hand of man, as your streets did. Mobway was laid down by great machines, for one sole purpose — to unimpede and hurry up the passing of the feet.

Where did Mobway come from? What produced it?

It came from the same place where all our mobways come from — from Standard Concentrated Production Units of America, No. 1. This is where all our streets, sidewalks, and lamp-posts (like the one on which Green’s brains are spattered) come from, where all our white-grimy bricks (like those of which your hotel is constructed) come from, where the red facades of our standard-unit tobacco stores (like the one across the street) come from, where our motor-cars come from, where our drug-stores and our drug-store windows and displays come from, where our soda fountains (complete, with soda jerkers attached) come from, where our cosmetics, toilet articles, and the fat, rouged lips of our Jewesses come from, where our soda water, slops and syrups, steamed spaghetti, ice-cream, and pimento sandwiches come from, where our clothes, our hats (neat, standard stamps of grey), our faces (also stamps of grey, not always neat), our language, conversation, sentiments, feelings, and opinions come from. All these things are made for us by Standard Concentrated Production Units of America, No. 1.

So here we are, then, Admiral Drake. You see the street, the sidewalk, the front of your hotel, the constant stream of motor-cars, the drug-store and the soda fountain, the tobacco store, the traffic lights, the cops in uniform, the people streaming in and out of the subway, the rusty, pale-hued jungle of the buildings, old and new, high and low. There is no better place to see it, Drake. For this is Brooklyn — which means ten thousand streets and blocks like this one. Brooklyn, Admiral Drake, is the Standard Concentrated Chaos No. 1 of the Whole Universe. That is to say, it has no size, no shape, no heart, no joy, no hope, no aspiration, no centre, no eyes, no soul, no purpose, no direction, and no anything — just Standard Concentrated Units everywhere — exploding in all directions for an unknown number of square miles like a completely triumphant Standard Concentrated Blot upon the Face of the Earth. And here, right in the middle — no, that is wrong, for Standard Concentrated Blots don’t have a middle — but, if not in the middle, at least right slap-bang out in the open, upon a minute portion of his magnificent Standard Concentrated Blot, where all the Standard Concentrated Blotters can stare at him, and with the brains completely out of him ——

— Lies Green!

And this is bad — most bad — oh, very bad — and should not be allowed! For, as our young Jewish friend has just indignantly proclaimed, it “shows no consideration for other people”— which means, for other Standard Concentrated Blotters. Green has no right to go falling in this fashion in a public place. He has no right to take unto himself any portion of this Standard Concentrated Blot, however small. He has no business being where he is at all. A Standard Concentrated Blotter is not supposed to be places, but to go places.

You see, dear Admiral, this is not a street to amble in, to ride along, to drift through. It is a channel — in the words of the Standard Concentrated Blotter–Press, an “artery”. This means that it is not a place where one drives, but a place where one is driven — not really a street at all, but a kind of tube for a projectile, a kind of groove for millions and millions of projectiles, all driven past incessantly, all beetling onwards, bearing briefly white slugged blurs of driven flesh.

As for the sidewalk, this Standard Concentrated Mobway is not a place to walk on, really. (Standard Concentrated Blotters have forgotten how to walk.) It is a place to swarm on, to weave on, to thrust and dodge on, to scurry past on, to crowd by on. It is not a place to stand on, either. One of the earliest precepts in a Concentrated Blotter’s life is: “Move on there! Where th’ hell d’you think you are, anyway — in a cow pasture?” And, most certainly, it is not a place to lie on, to sprawl out on.

But look at Green! Just look at him! No wonder the Jewish youth is angry with him!

Green has wilfully and deliberately violated every Standard Concentrated Principle of Blotterdom. He has not only gone and dashed his brains out, but he has done it in a public place — upon a piece of Standard Concentrated Mobway. He has messed up the sidewalk, messed up another Standard Concentrated Blotter, stopped traffic, taken people from their business, upset the nerves of his fellow Blotters — and now lies there, all sprawled out, in a place where he has no right to be. And, to make his crime unpardonable, C. Green has ——

— Come to Life!

Consider that, old Drake! We can understand some measure of your strangeness, because we heard you swearing in the tavern and saw your sails stand to the west. Can you now do the same for us? Consider strangeness, Drake — and look at Green! For you have heard it said by your own countryman, and in your living generation: “The times have been that, when the brains were out, the man would die.” But now, old Drake, what hath Time wrought? There is surely here some strangeness in us that you could never have foretold. For the brains are “out” now — and the man has ——

— Come to Life!

What’s that, Admiral? You do not understand it? Small wonder, though it’s really very simple:

For just ten minutes since, C. Green was a Concentrated Blotter like the rest of us. Ten minutes since, he, too, might hurry in and out of the subway, thrust and scurry on the pavement, go hurtling past with whited blur in one of our beetles of machinery, a nameless atom, cypher, cinder, swarming with the rest of us, just another “guy” like a hundred million other “guys”. But now, observe him! No longer is he just “another guy”— already he has become a “special guy”— has become “The Guy”. C. Green at last has turned into a —Man!

Four hundred years ago, brave Admiral Drake, if we had seen you lying on your deck, your bronze gone pale and cold, imbrued in your own blood, and hewn to the middle by the Spaniards’ steel, we could have understood that, for there was blood in you. But Green — this Concentrated Blotter of ten minutes since — made in our own image, shaped in our own dust, compacted of the same grey stuff of which our own lives are compacted, and filled, we thought, with the same Standard Concentration of embalming fluid that fills our veins — oh, Drake, we did not know the fellow had such blood in him! We could not have thought it was so red, so rich, and so abundant!

Poor, shabby, and corrupted cypher! Poor, nameless, and exploded atom! Poor little guy! He fills us Concentrated Blotters of the Universe with fear, with shame, with awe, with pity, and with terror — for we see ourselves in him. If he was a man with blood in him, then so are we! If he, in the midst of his always-driven life, could at last be driven to this final and defiant gesture of refusal to remain a Concentrated Blotter, then we, too, might be driven to a point of equal desperation! And there are other methods of defiance, other ways of ultimate refusal, other means of exercising one’s last-remaining right of manhood — and some of them are no less terrifying to contemplate than this! So our fascinated eyes go up and up, past floor after floor of Standard Concentrated brick, and fasten on the open window where he stood — and suddenly we crane our necks along the ridges of our collars, look away with constricted faces, and taste the acrid bitterness of steel upon our lips!

It is too hard, and not to be endured — to know that little Green, speaking our own tongue and stuffed with our own stuffing, had yet concealed in him some secret, dark, and frightful thing more terrible than anything that we have ever known — that he bore within him some black and hideous horror, some depth of madness or of courage, and could stand there— upon the sheer and nauseating verge of that grey window-ledge for five full minutes — and know the thing he was about to do — and tell himself he must now! — that he had to! — that the compulsion of every horror-fascinated eye down in the gulf below had now made escape impossible — and then, horror-sick past all regeneration, see, too, before he jumped, his fall, the downward-hurtling plunge, and his own exploded body — feel the bones crack and fly apart, and the brutal obliteration of the instant when his brains would shoot out against the lamp-post — and even while his soul drew back from that sheer verge of imagined terror, shame, and unutterable self-loathing, crying: “I cannot do it!”— then jumped!

And we, brave Drake? We try to see it, but we cannot see. We try to fathom it, but we cannot plunge. We try to comprehend the hell of hells, the hundred lives of horror, madness, anguish, and despair that were exhausted in five minutes by that shabby creature crouched there on the window-ledge. But we cannot understand, or look at it any longer. It is too hard, too hard, and not to be endured. We turn away with nausea, hollowness, blind fear, and unbelief within us.

One man stares, cranes his neck, wets his lips, and whispers: “Jesus! To do a thing like that takes guts!

Another, harshly: “Nah! It don’t take guts! A guy who’d do a thing like that is crazy! He don’t know what he’s doin’ to begin with!”

And others, doubtfully, half-whispering, with eyes focused on the ledge: “But Jesus!”

A taxi-driver, turning away and moving towards his cab, with an attempt at casual indifference that does not ring entirely true: “Oh, well! Just another guy, I guess!”

Then one man, turning to his companion with a little puckered smile: “Well, what about it, Al? You still feel like eating?”

And his companion, quietly: “Eating, hell! I feel like two or three stiff shots of rye! Come on, let’s go round to Steve’s!”

They go. The Concentrated Blotters of the World cannot abide it. They must somehow blot it out.

So a policeman comes round the corner now with an old tarpaulin, with which he covers the No–Head. The crowd remains. Then the green wagon from the morgue. The Thing, tarpaulin and all, is pushed into it. It drives away. A policeman with thick-soled boots scuffs and pushes skull-pieces and brain-fragments into the gutter. Someone comes with sawdust, strews it. Someone from the drugstore with formaldehyde. Later, someone with a hose and water. From the subway come an adolescent boy and girl with the hard, tough faces of the city; they walk past it, deliberately and arrogantly step among it, look at the lamp-post, then at each other, and laugh!

All’s over now, all’s gone, the crowd’s departed. Something else remains. It cannot be forgotten. There’s a sick, humid smell upon the air, what was light and clear and crystal has gone out of day, and something thick and glutinous — half taste, half smell, and all impalpable — remains upon your tongue.

There would have been a time and place for such a thing, brave Admiral Drake, if he, our fellow Green, had only fallen as a hollow man and landed dryly, or if he had opened to disperse a grey embalming fluid in the gutter. It would have been all right if he had just been blown away like an old paper, or if he had been swept aside like remnants of familiar litter, and then subsumed into the Standard Concentrated stuff from which he came. But C. Green would not have it so. He exploded to drench our common substance of viscous grey with the bright indecency of blood, to resume himself from number, to become before our eyes a Man, and to identify a single spot of all our general Nothingness with the unique passion, the awful terror, and the dignity of Death.

So, Admiral Drake —“an unidentified man fell ‘or jumped yesterday at noon” from a window of your own hotel. That was the news. Now you’ve had the story.

We are “the hollow men, the hollow men”? Brave Admiral, do not be too sure.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wolfe/thomas/you-cant-go-home-again/chapter29.html

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