You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

4. Some Things Will Never Change

Out of his front windows George could see nothing except the sombre bulk of the warehouse across the street. It was an old building, with a bleak and ugly front of rusty, indurated brown and a harsh webbing of fire-escapes, and across the whole width of the facade stretched a battered wooden sign on which, in faded letters, one could make out the name —“The Security Distributing Corp.” George did not know what a distributing corporation was, but every day since he had come into this street to live, enormous motor-vans had driven up before this dingy building and had backed snugly against the worn plankings of the loading platform, which ended with a sharp, sheared emptiness four feet above the pavement. The drivers and their helpers would leap from their seats, and instantly the quiet depths of the old building would burst into a furious energy of work, and the air would be filled with harsh cries:

“Back it up, deh! Back it up! Cuh-mahn! Cuh-mahn! Givvus a hand, youse guys! Hey-y! You!

They looked at one another with hard faces of smiling derision, quietly saying “Jesus!” out of the corners of their mouths. Surly, they stood upon their rights, defending truculently the narrow frontier of their duty:

“Wadda I care where it goes! Dat’s yoeh look-out! Wat t’hell’s it got to do wit me?

They worked with speed and power and splendid aptness, furiously, unamiably, with high, exacerbated voices, spurred and goaded by their harsh unrest.

The city was their stony-hearted mother, and from her breast they had drawn a bitter nurture. Born to brick and asphalt, to crowded tenements and swarming streets, stunned into sleep as children beneath the sudden slamming racket of the elevated trains, taught to fight, to menace, and to struggle in a world of savage violence and incessant din, they had had the city’s qualities stamped into their flesh and movements, distilled through all their tissues, etched with the city’s acid into their tongue and brain and vision. Their faces were tough and seamed, the skin thick, dry, without a hue of freshness or of colour. Their pulse beat with the furious rhythm of the city’s stroke: ready in an instant with a curse, metallic clangours sounded from their twisted lips, and their hearts were filled with a dark, immense, and secret pride.

Their souls were like the asphalt visages of city streets. Each day the violent colours of a thousand new sensations swept across them, and each day all sound and sight and fury were erased from their unyielding surfaces. Ten thousand furious days had passed about them, and they had no memory. They lived like creatures born full-grown into present time, shedding the whole accumulation of the past with every breath, and all their lives were written in the passing of each actual moment.

And they were sure and certain, for ever wrong, but always confident. They had no hesitation, they confessed no ignorance or error, and they knew no doubts. They began each morning with a gibe, a shout, an oath of hard impatience, eager for the tumult of the day. At noon they sat strongly in their seats and, through fumes of oil and hot machinery, addressed their curses to the public at the tricks and strategies of cunning rivals, the tyranny of the police, the stupidity of pedestrians, and the errors of less skilful men than they. Each day they faced the perils of the streets with hearts as calm as if they were alone upon a country road. Each day, with minds untroubled, they embarked upon adventures from which the bravest men bred in the wilderness would have recoiled in terror and desolation.

In the raw days of early spring they had worn shirts of thick black wool and leather jackets, but now, in summer, their arms were naked, tattooed, brown, and lean with the play of whipcord muscles. The power and precision with which they worked stirred in George a deep emotion of respect, and also touched him with humility. For whenever he saw it, his own life, with its conflicting desires, its uncertain projects and designs, its labours begun in hope and so often ended in incompletion, by comparison with the lives of these men who, had learned to use their strength and talents perfectly, seemed faltering, blind, and baffled.

At night, too, five times a week, the mighty vans would line up at the kerb in an immense and waiting caravan. They were covered now with great tarpaulins, small green lamps were burning on each side, and the drivers, their faces faintly lit with the glowing points of cigarettes, would be talking quietly in the shadows of their huge machines. Once George had asked one of the drivers the destination of these nightly journeys, and the man had told him that they went to Philadelphia, and would return again by morning.

The sight of these great vans at night, sombre, silent, yet alive with powerful expectancy as their drivers waited for the word to start, gave George a sense of mystery and joy. These men were part of that great company who love the night, and he felt a bond of union with them. For he had always loved the night more dearly than the day, and the energies of his life had risen to their greatest strength in the secret and exultant heart of darkness.

He knew the joys and labours of such men as these. He could see the shadowy procession of their vans lumbering through the sleeping towns, and feel the darkness, the cool fragrance of the country, on his face. He could see the drivers hunched behind the wheels, their senses all alert in the lilac dark, their eyes fixed hard upon the road to curtain off the loneliness of the land at night. And he knew the places where they stopped to eat, the little all-night lunch-rooms warm with greasy light, now empty save for the dozing authority of the aproned Greek behind the counter, and now filled with the heavy shuffle of the drivers’ feet, the hard and casual intrusions of their voices.

They came in, flung themselves upon the row of stools, and gave their orders. And as they waited, their hunger drawn into sharp focus by the male smells of boiling coffee, frying eggs and onions, and sizzling hamburgers, they took the pungent, priceless, and uncostly solace of a cigarette, lit between cupped hand and strong-seamed mouth, drawn deep and then exhaled in slow fumes from the nostrils. They poured great gobs and gluts of thick tomato ketchup on their hamburgers, tore with blackened fingers at the slabs of fragrant bread, and ate with jungle lust, thrusting at plate and cup with quick and savage gulpings.

Oh, he was with them, of them, for them, blood brother of their joy and hunger to the last hard swallow, the last deep, ease of sated bellies, the last slow coil of blue expiring from their grateful lungs. Their lives seemed glorious to him in the magic dark of summer. They swept cleanly through the night into the first light and bird song of the morning, into the morning of new joy upon the earth; and as he thought of this it seemed to him that the secret, wild, and lonely heart of man was young and living in the darkness, and could never die.

Before him, all that summer of 1929, in the broad window of the warehouse, a man sat at a desk and looked out into the street, in a posture that never changed. George saw him there whenever he glanced across, yet he never saw him do anything but look out of the window with a fixed, abstracted stare. At first the man had been such an unobtrusive part of his surroundings that he had seemed to fade into’ them, and had gone almost unnoticed. Then Esther, having observed him there, pointed to him one day and said merrily:

“There’s our friend in the Distributing Corp again! What do you suppose he distributes? I’ve never seen him do anything! Have you noticed him — hah?” she cried eagerly. “God! It’s the strangest thing I ever saw!” She laughed richly, made a shrug of bewildered protest, and, after a moment, said with serious wonder: “Isn’t it queer? What do you suppose a man like that can do? What do you suppose he’s thinking of?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” George said indifferently. “Of nothing, I suppose.”

Then they forgot the man and turned to talk of other things, yet from that moment the man’s singular presence was pricked out in George’s mind and he began to watch him with hypnotic fascination, puzzled by the mystery of his immobility and his stare.

And after that, as soon as Esther came in every day, she would glance across the street and cry out in a jolly voice which had in it the note of affectionate satisfaction and assurance that people have when they see some familiar and expected object:

“Well, I see our old friend, The Distributing Corp, is still looking out of his window! I wonder what he’s thinking of today.”

She would turn away, laughing. Then, for a moment, with her childlike fascination for words and rhythms, she gravely meditated their strange beat, silently framing and pronouncing with her lips a series of meaningless sounds —“Corp–Borp-Forp–Dorp-Torp”— and at length singing out in a gleeful chant, and with an air of triumphant discovery:

“The Distributing Corp, the Distributing Corp, He sits all day and he does no Worp!”

George protested that her rhyme made no sense, but she threw back her encrimsoned face and screamed with laughter.

But after a while they stopped laughing about the man. For, obscure as his employment seemed, incredible and comical as his indolence had been when they first noticed it, there came to be something impressive, immense, and formidable in the quality of that fixed stare. Day by day, a thronging traffic of life and business passed before him in the street; day by day, the great vans came, the drivers, handlers, and packers swarmed before his eyes, filling, the air with their oaths and cries, irritably intent upon their labour but the man in the window never looked at them, never gave any, sign that he heard them, never seemed to be aware of their existence — he just sat there and looked out, his eyes fixed in an abstracted stare.

In the course of George Webber’s life, many things of no great importance in themselves had become deeply embedded in his memory, stuck there like burs in a scottie’s tail; and always they were little things which, in an instant of clear perception, had riven his heart with some poignant flash of meaning. Thus he remembered, and would remember for ever, the sight of Esther’s radiant, earnest face when, unexpectedly one night, he caught sight of it as it flamed and ‘vanished in a crowd of grey, faceless faces in Times Square. So, too, he remembered two deaf mutes he had seen talking on their fingers in a subway train; and a ringing peal of children’s laughter in a desolate street at sunset; and the waitresses in their dingy little rooms across the backyard, washing, ironing, and rewashing day after day the few adornments of their shabby finery, in endless preparations for a visitor who never came.

And now, to his store of treasured trivia was added the memory of this man’s face — thick, white, expressionless, set in its stolid and sorrowful stare. Immutable, calm, impassive, it became for him the symbol of a kind of permanence in the rush and sweep of chaos in the city, where all things come and go and pass and are so soon forgotten. For, day after day, as he watched the man and tried to penetrate his mystery, at last it seemed to him that he had found the answer.

And after that, in later years, whenever he remembered the man’s face, the time was fixed at the end of a day in late summer. Without-violence or heat, the last rays of the sun fell on the warm brick of the building and painted it with a sad, unearthly light. In the window the man sat, always looking out. He never wavered in his gaze, his eyes were calm and sorrowful, and on his face was legible the exile of an imprisoned spirit.

That man’s face became for him the face of. Darkness and of Time. It never spoke, and yet it had a voice — a voice that seemed to have the whole earth in it. It was the voice of evening and of night, and in it were the blended tongues of all those men who have passed through the heat and fury of the day, and who now lean quietly upon the sills of evening. In it was the whole vast hush and weariness that comes upon the city at the hour of dusk, when the chaos of another day is ended, and when everything — streets, buildings, and eight million people — breathe slowly, with a tired and sorrowful joy. And in that single tongueless voice was the knowledge of all their tongues.

“Child, child,” it said, “have patience and belief, for life is many days, and each present hour will pass away. Son, son, you have been mad and drunken, furious and wild, filled with hatred and despair, and all the dark confusions of the soul — but so have we. You found the earth too great for your one life, you found your brain and sinew smaller than the hunger and desire that fed on them — but it has been this way with all men. You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way — but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth. And now, because you have known madness and despair, and because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love, we who have hungered after fame and savoured all of life, the tumult, pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all that henceforth never more shall touch us — we call upon you to take heart, for we can swear to you that these things pass.

“We have outlived the shift and glitter of so many fashions, we have seen so many things that come and go, so many words forgotten, so many flames that flared and were destroyed; yet we know now we are strangers whose footfalls have not left a print upon the endless streets of life. We shall not go into the dark again, nor suffer madness, nor admit despair: we have built a wall about us now. We shall not hear the docks of time strike out on foreign air, nor wake at morning in some alien land to think of home: our wandering is over, and our hunger fed. 0 brother, son, and comrade, because we have lived so long and seen so much, we are content to make our own a few things now, letting millions pass.

“Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth, and listen.

“The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air — these things will never change.

“The glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbours, the feathery blur and smoky buddings of young boughs, and something there that comes and goes and never can be captured, the thorn of spring, the sharp and tongueless cry — these things will always be the same.

“All things belonging to the earth will never change — the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth — all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth — these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts for ever. Only the earth endures, but it endures for ever.

“The tarantula, the adder, and the asp will also never change. Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, for ever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.”

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