With Ambrose Channel ahead of them, Sam Dodsworth and his friend Ross Ireland spent a considerable part of their time in the smoking-room of the Aquitania arguing with other passengers about the glories of America. Sam was appreciative enough, but Ross was eloquent, he was lyric, he was tremendous.
At praise of Paris, Cambodia, Oslo, Glasgow, or any other foreign pride, he snorted, “Look here, son, that’s all applesauce, and I KNOW! I’ve been hiking for three years. I’ve interviewed Count Bethlen and I’ve paddled up the Congo; I’ve done a swell piece about the Lena Gold Fields and I’ve driven three thousand miles in England. And believe me, I’m glad to be getting back to a real country, buddy!
“New York? Noisy? Say, why wouldn’t it be noisy? It’s got something going on! Believe me, they’re remodeling all the old parts of Heaven after New York skyscrapers! Say, if we get past the perils of the deep and I have the chance to hang my hat up in Park Row again, you’ll never get me farther away than an Elks’ Convention at Atlantic City! And don’t let anybody tell you that the Elks and the Rotarians and the National Civic Federation are any more grab-it-all than the English merchant, who hates our dollar-chasing so much that he wants to keep us from it by copping all the dollars there are to chase, or the elegant highbrow Frenchman who doesn’t love the franc any more than he loves God. Why say, even about drinking — I’ll admit I like a sidewalk cafe better than I do a speak-easy, but once I round up my old bunch at Denny’s and have a chance to stick my legs under the table with a lot of real home-baked he-Americans instead of these imitation-Frog Americans that loaf around abroad — Boy!”
Sam discovered, dropping into Ross Ireland’s stateroom, that Ross was guilty of secret intellectual practises. Except when, in morning clothes, he was interviewing Lord Chancellors and Generals Commanding, Ross felt that he must prove his sturdy independence by saying “Buddy,” “Where d’you get that stuff,” and “Oh, bologny.” He was never, by any chance, “doing an analytical study”— at most he was “writing a little piece.” He addressed English stewards as “Cap’n,” he asked the Cockney smoking-room steward for his “check,” and almost his only French expression was “viskey-soda.” He announced, widely and loudly, that any newspaperman who called himself a “journalist” was a Big Stiff, a Phoney Highbrow, and an Imitation Limey. He said that any foreign correspondent who read history, went to concerts, or wore spats was “showing off.”
But Sam discovered that Ross Ireland was guilty of reading vast and gloomy volumes of history; that he admired Conrad more than Conan Doyle; that he had a sneaking preference of chess to poker; and that he was irritably proud of having his evening clothes made in London.
That such a man, violently American yet not untraveled in distant coasts, should so rejoice at going back made Sam the more convinced about returning to his own. Of the vast and polished elegancies of the Aquitania he had little impression, none of the excitement about the steely resolution of ships which he had known on the Ultima, because all his excitement was focused on the blessed people he was going to see.
Tub Pearson —
He heard himself saying, “Well, you fat little runt! You horse-thief! Golly, I’m glad to see you!”
He stood forward on the promenade deck, fancying that his heart beat in rhythm with the rise and the fall of the prow, exulting as the ship slashed through the miles between him and home. He seemed a kindly but stolid figure there, a big man in a gray Burberry and a gray cap, a competent and unsentimental man. But he was boiling with sentiment. Once at night, when he saw the lights of a ship ahead, he pretended that they were the shore lights of Long Island, and he ardently imagined the dear familiarities — wide streets, clashing traffic, brick garages, the insolent splendor of skyscrapers and, toward the country, miles of white and green little houses where the sort of men he understood played games he understood, poker and bridge, and listened on the radio to the sort of humor and music that he understood. And before every other bungalow was a Revelation car.
“— and I’m going to STAY!” he exulted.
All the way over, Ross Ireland and he had boasted to such passengers as had never seen America that they would not “be able to believe their eyes” when they steamed up North River. Ross chanted, “Greatest sight in the world — skyscrapers one after another — thirty, forty, fifty stories high, and beautiful — say! they make Cologne Cathedral look like a Methodist chapel and the Eiffel Tower look like an umbrella with the cover off!”
They both, indeed, made so many protestations about the sight of New York harbor that Sam began to wonder whether he really was going to be as thrilled as he was going to be thrilled. He remembered how, after the most conversational anticipation with Fran, he had been disappointed by his first sight of Notre Dame. It had seemed low and hulking — not half so impressive as the lath-and-plaster Notre Dame in the movie film. He managed to fret rather ardently. He hoped to be uplifted by New York as a young lover hopes to be enraptured by the sight of his lady.
They came through the Narrows, into New York harbor, early in the June morning. Sam was up at five, delighted by the friendly green of the lawn at Fort Hamilton, after the shifting sea. It was extraordinarily hot for early summer, a bit uncomfortable even on deck, and a fog hid the horizon. Sam was afraid that he was not to have his rediscovery of New York. After quarantine, as they trudged from Staten Island toward North River, he could see only anchored tramp steamers, and a huge water-beetle of a ferry boat, hoarse-voiced and insulting. Then the fog lifted, and he cried “My God!” High up shone the towers and spires of an enchanted city floating upon the mist, pyramids and domes glistening in the early sun, vast walls studded with golden windows, spellbound and incredible.
Ross Ireland, beside him, muttered “Gee!” and then, “Say, does it make you proud to be coming home to that?”
It is true that when they swaggered up North River, the debris of docks and warehouses and factories on the riverbank seemed rather littered. The thickening heat glared round them, and the river was greasy with swirls of fantastically colored oil films. But as they were cumbersomely warped into the dock, as Sam heard the good American shouts from the dark hedge of people waiting on the pier; “Attaboy!” and “Where’d you get the monocle?” and “How’d you leave Mary?” and “Oh, come on — have a heart! — sneak me ONE bottle ashore!”— he muttered over and over, “It’s kind of nice to be home!”
Then there were the customs.
Not that the inspectors were so impolite as is fabled, but it is irritating to be suspected of smuggling liquor, particularly when, like Sam, you are smuggling liquor. He had a quart of pre-war Scotch among the suits in a wardrobe trunk, and the inspector found it, immediately.
“What’s this? What d’you call this?”
“Why! It looks like a bottle!” said Sam, affably. “I can’t imagine how it got there! Let me present it to you.”
And they fined him five dollars. But what was worse was that being destitute of liquor caused in Sam a most indignant thirst — Sam Dodsworth, who had never in his life taken a drink before noon, except once after a certain football game in New Haven. He HAD to have —
The taxi-driver — Sam came to him after hours of paying customs-fees, of getting necessitous porters, in a high state of boredom, to trundle his luggage along the immensity of cement floor and through to freedom, of seeing it shot perilously down the most efficient and disconcerting moving belt, and of having it and himself thrown gasping into the lions’ den of New York traffic — the taxi-driver gave Sam his first welcome to America.
“Wherejuh wanna go?” he growled.
It shocked Sam to find how jarred he was by this demonstration of democracy. Like most Americans in Paris, he had been insisting that all French taxi-drivers were bandits, but now they seemed to him like playful and cuddling children.
It was achingly hot in the side streets leading from the piers, and appallingly dirty. In front of warehouses and mean brick houses turned into tenements were flying newspapers, piles of bottles and rags and manure. Gritty clouds of ashes blew from open garbage cans, and tangled with the heat was New York’s summertime stench of rotten bananas, unwashed laundry, ancient bedding, and wet pavements. In front of the taxicab, making Sam’s heart stop with fear, darted ragged small boys (quite cheerful, and illogically healthy); and on the flimsy iron balconies of fire-escapes sat mothers with hair dragging across their eyes, nursing babies who in between sups wailed against the unjust heat. It was, Sam felt, a city nervous as a thwarted woman. (Sam still believed in male strength and female weakness.) It seemed so masculine in its stalwart buildings, but there was nothing masculine in its heat-shocked, clamor-maddened nerves. The traffic policemen raged at Sam’s taxi-driver, the taxi-driver cursed all the truck-drivers, and, above the roaring of their engines, the truck-drivers cursed everybody on the street.
Ninth Avenue was insane with the banging of the Elevated; Eighth Avenue was a frontier camp of little shops; Seventh Avenue was a bedlam of traffic between loft buildings with enormous signs — “Lowenstein & Putski, Garments for Little Gents,” and “The Gay Life Brassiere, Rothweiser and Gitz”; Sixth Avenue combined the roar of Ninth with the nastiness of Eighth and the charging traffic of Seventh; and when in relief Sam saw the stateliness of Fifth Avenue, there was an inhuman mass of shiny cars from curb to curb.
The Sam Dodsworth who considered himself tireless was exhausted when he crawled into the cool refuge of his hotel. He sat by the window in his room, looking at the sullen stretch of the lofty office-building opposite, and longed for a drink.
“Conservatively, I’d give twenty-five dollars right now for the bottle of Scotch that the customs man took away from me. . . . Oh, Lord! . . . I don’t like New York so well, in weather like this. I’ll be glad to get out into the country. That’s the real America. . . . I hope it will be! . . . I can see where I’m not going to complain about having too much leisure, the way I did in Paris! And I want that drink!”
It did not improve his opinion of Prohibition — it made the whole business seem the more imbecile and annoying and hypocritical — that after a telephone call, within half an hour he had a case of whisky in his room, and that he was taking a drink far earlier in the day than he would ever have done in Paris.
He had many people to see in New York before he went to New Haven for his class reunion. But he telephoned to no one — with the exception of the bootlegger. He had only the energy to sit by the window, getting what breeze there was, trying to ignore the ceaseless menace of the city roar, feeling more homeless than in Europe, trying to compose a lively cable to Fran and to get Brent, in New Haven, on the telephone.
He had not cabled Brent his date of sailing. “Boy’s probably tied up with a lot of exams and things; when I land in New York I’ll find out by ‘phone when it’s convenient for him to come down to New York.” Brent was not to be found now by telephone. Sam sent him a telegram, and that was quite all that he felt like doing. He rested till one, till half-past. He had a small lunch, in his room, and the joy of having proper American sugar corn almost revived him, but afterward he sat by the window again till three, brooding. Lassitude bound him like a vast cobweb.
What was he doing here in New York? What was he doing anywhere? What reason had he for living? He was not necessary to Fran in Paris. And the motor-car industry seemed to be spinning on quite cheerily without him.
He faced his discovery — the incident had happened at his entrance to the hotel, but he had not admitted it to his consciousness till now. Alighting from his taxicab he had seen the new model Revelation car, as produced by the Unit Automotive Company, at three hundred dollars less than Sam’s former price. He had wanted to hate it, to declare that it was tinny and wretched, but he had had to admit that it was a marvel of trimness, with the body swung lower, the windshield more raking. He felt antiquated. The U.A.C. had created this new model in six months; with his own organization he could not have produced it in less than a year. And he would have held it till the autumn motor shows and brought it out pompously, as though he were a priest grudgingly letting the laity behold his mysteries. Were the U.A.C. making light of seasons and announcement-dates — just tossing off new models as though they were cans of corn?
It came to him that he had not known when the new Revelation would be out. For the first months of his absence he had heard often from Alec Kynance, received all the gossip, with many invitations to return. He had heard but little the past three months. Was he out of it — perhaps forever?
He had come back to America feeling that the world of motors longed for him; he felt, this hot confused afternoon, that no one cared. . . . It was true that, to keep his time free, he had told no one he was arriving, but confound it, they might have found out somehow —
Come to think of it, not one of the reporters who had boarded the Aquitania and hunted down incoming celebrities — the Polish tennis champion, the famous radio-announcer who had been perfecting his art in Berlin, the latest New York–Paris divorcee — had paid attention to him. Yet when he had gone abroad, they had interviewed him as a Representative American Business Man —
He was frightened by his drop into insignificance.
At half-past three he was startled and cheered by a telephone-call:
“Hello? Dodsworth? This is Ross Ireland. Say, I’m in the same hotel. Doing anything? Mind if I run up for a minute?”
Ireland burst in, red, collar wilted, panting.
“Say, Dodsworth, am I crazy? Do I look crazy?”
“No, you look hot.”
“Hot? Hell! I’ve been hot in Rangoon. But I sat back in a nice carriage, in my pretty little white suit and my sun helmet, and took it easy. I didn’t feel as though I’d been in two hundred and twenty-seven train collisions, one right after another. Do you know what I’ve found out? I hate this damn’ town! It’s the dirtiest, noisiest, craziest hole I was ever in! I hate it — me that’s been going up and down the face of the earth for the last three years, shooting my face off and telling everybody what a swell capital New York is.
“What you got to drink? Oh, God, only whisky? Well, let’s have a look at it.
“Well, this morning I didn’t even stop to unpack. I was going to see the dear old home town — the dear old neighbors, by heck, down on Park Row. I got down to the Quackenbos office, and the office boy hadn’t ever heard my name — I’ve only been sending in three columns a week, signed, for three years! But he found a stenographer who thought she’d heard of me, and they actually let me in to see the old man — mind you, to get in to see him was sixteen times harder than it would be to see King George at Buckingham Palace, and when I did get in, there he was with his feet in a desk drawer reading the jokes in the New Yorker. Well, he was all right. He jumped up and told me I was the white-haired boy, and the sight of me’d just about saved him from typhoid, and we talked a whole half hour, and then made a date to finish up our business at lunch, tomorrow! Oh no, he didn’t have one minute till then! Tonight — God, no, he had to help open up a new roof garden.
“Oh, I’ve been the boiled mutton-head! I’ve been going around Europe and Asia telling the heathen that the reason we hustle so in New York is because we get so much done. I never discovered till today that we do all this hustling, all this jamming in subways, all this elbowing into elevators, to keep ourselves occupied and keep from getting anything done! Say, I’ll bet I accomplished more honest-to-God work in Vienna in three hours than I will here in three days! Those Austrian hicks don’t have any bright office boys or filing-systems to prevent them from talking business. So they go home for two hours’ lunch. Poor devils! No chance to ride on the subway! And only cafes to sit around in, instead of night clubs. Awful life!
“Well, when I’d got this whole half hour in with the boss — he took up most of it telling a swell new smutty story he’d just heard — one I used to tell back in Ioway in 1900 — I drifted over to the Chronicle to see the bunch I used to work with. . . . I was city editor there once! . . . Half of the bunch were aus. Gone into politics, I guess. . . . The other half were glad to see me, so far as I could figure out, but they’d gone and got married or learned to play bridge or taken to teaching Sunday School or some immoral practise like that, and by golly not one of ’em could I get for dinner and a show tonight. By the way, you don’t happen to be free for tonight, Dodsworth, do you? Grand! Tickled to death!
“Well, I went out to lunch with one of the fellows on the Sunday edition. He suggested some whisky, but I wanted something cool. He said he knew a place where we could get some real genuine Italian Chianti — and say, he called it ‘genuwine Ytalian’ too. As a joke. I believe he taught English in Harvard for a year. But being a hard-boiled newspaperman, of course he had to be a roughneck, to show he wasn’t pedantic. . . . Like me, I guess. I’ve been pulling that same lowbrow pose myself.
“But anyway: we look up this genuwine Ytalian dump — I guess, from the smell, they used it as a laundry till it got too dirty — and the Wop brought on a bottle of something that was just about as much like Chianti as I’m like a lily of the valley. Honestly, Sam, it tasted like vinegar that’d been used on beets just once too often.
“And then — Oh, I suppose, being just back after my first long hike, I felt I had a Chautauqua message for Young America — I suppose I felt I was a Peary bringing home the Pole under my arm. I tried to tell this chap how much I knew about Burma, and how chummy I was with Lord Beaverbrook, and all the news about the land problem in Upper Silesia, and was he interested? Say, he was about as much interested as I’d be in a chatty account of the advancement of Christian Science in Liberia! But he had a lot of important news for me. Golly! Bill Smith’d had a raise of twenty bucks a week! Pete Brown is going to edit the hockey gossip, instead of Mike Magoon! The Edam Restaurant is going to have a new jazz orchestra! The Fishback Portable Typewriter has gone up five dollars in price! Ellen Whoozis, the cocktail-party queen, who writes the Necking Notes, is going to marry the religious editor!
“Say, it was exactly like going back to the dear old Home Town in Ioway, after my first three years in New York! That time I wanted to tell the home-town boys all the news about the Brooklyn Ridge and immorality, and they wanted to talk about Henry Hick’s new flivver!
“Well, I guess it’s all about alike, really — Buddhism in Burma and Henry’s flivver. It’s all neighborhood gossip, with different kinds of neighbors. Only —
“But it isn’t the same! I’ve seen — oh, God, Sam, I’ve seen the jungle at dawn, and these fellows have stayed here, stuck at little desks, and never drifted five steps away from their regular route from home, to the office, to the speak-easy, to the office, to the movie, to home. I was on a ship afire in the Persian Gulf —
“I know it’s just vanity, Sam, but there ARE things outside America — Whether they’re ever going to have sense enough to make a Pan–Europa there — whether Britain is going to recognize Russia, and who’s going to get Russian oil — what will become of Poland — what Fascism really means in Italy; things that ought to be almost as interesting as the next baseball game. But these lads that’ve stuck here in New York, they’re so self-satisfied (like I was once!) that they don’t care a hang for anything beyond the current price of gin! They don’t know there is a Europe, beyond the Paris bars. Why even in my shop — I carry on in Europe as though I were the great, three-star, two-tailed special foreign correspondent but here (it’s a fact!) the fellow that does the weekly cartoon about Farmer Hiram Winterbottom gets three times my salary — say, if HE came into the office, old Quackenbos would give him the whole day!
“Well, now that I’ve told you what a nice, lace-collared, abused darling I am, let’s —
“But this town, that I’ve been looking forward to —(Man, do you realize we could sail back on the Aqui in a week? Think of that nice cool corner in the smoking-room!) I’ve found that the one and only up-to-date, new, novel, ingenious way of getting anywhere in this burg, if you want to GET there, is to walk! It takes a taxi, in this traffic, ten minutes to make ten blocks. And the subway — How many years since you’ve been in the subway? Well, don’t! I thought I was a pretty big guy, and fairly husky, but say, the subway guard at the Grand Central just stuck his knee in the middle of my back and rammed me into a car that was already plumb-full like I was a three-year-old child! And I stood up as far as Brooklyn Bridge, with my nose in the neck of a garbage-wholesaler! Say, I feel like an anarchist! I want to blow up the whole town!
“Then, after lunch, I wanted to buy a few real first-edition suits of American athletic underwear, so I went to Mosheim’s department store. Seen their new building? Looks like a twenty-story ice-palace. Windows full of diamonds and satins and ivory and antique Spanish furniture, and lingerie that would make a movie-actress blush. ‘City of luxury — Europe beat a mile!’ says I. ‘Extra! Pleasure Capital of the World Discovered by H. Ross Ireland!’ And then I tried to get into the store. Honestly, Sam. I’ll be quite a husky fellow when I get my strenth. I used to play center and wrestle heavyweight in the University of Iowa. But, by golly, I couldn’t hardly wedge my way in through the doors. There was one stream of maniacs rushing out and another rushing in, as though it was a fire, and every aisle was jammed, and then when you got to the proper counter —
“Well, I’ve got good and plenty sore at the way the hired help treat you abroad. I’ve had a Turkish rug-vendor go crazy when I didn’t want to pay more’n twice the price of a rug; I’ve had a hard-boiled Greek mate bawl hell out of me because he tripped over me on deck; I’ve had a gondolier say what he thought of my tip. But anyway, those fellows treated you as though you were almost their equals. It’s like Chesterton says — if a fellow kicks his butler down-stairs, it doesn’t show any lack of democracy; it’s only when he feels too superior to his butler to touch him that he’s really snooty. And that’s how the nice bright young gent at the underwear-counter treated me. He had about six people to wait on, and unless I spoke quick and took what he gave me, he wasn’t going to waste time on me, and he kept looking at me with a ‘You big hick, don’t try to fool me, that ain’t no real New York suit you got on — back to Yankton.’
“Then I tried to get out of the store. One fellow elbowing you in the stomach and another jabbing you in the back, and the elevator man hollering ‘Step lively, please,’ till you wanted to sock him in the nose. Honestly, I felt like a refugee driven by the Cossacks — no, I didn’t feel that human; I felt like I was one of a bunch of steers driven down the runway to the slaughter-house. God, what a town! Luxury! Gold! Everything but self-respect and decency and privacy!
“And what an oration! That’s the longest speech I’ve made since I caught my No.1 Boy in Burma wearing my best pants!”
“Well,” Sam soothed, “it’ll be better when you get out into the country.”
“But I don’t like the country! Being a hick by origin, I like cities. I had enough cornfields and manure-piles before I ran away, at fourteen. And from what I heard at lunch, all the other towns in America are becoming about as bad as New York — traffic jams and big movie theaters and radios yapping everywhere and everybody has to have electric dish-washers and vacuum cleaners and each family has to have not one car, by golly, but two or three — and all on the installment plan! But I guess any of those burgs would be better than this New York monkey jungle.
“And I thought I knew this town! Ten years I put in here! But honestly, it’s sixteen times as bad as it was three years ago, seems to me. Ought to be lovely three years from NOW! And foreign — say, when you see a real old-fashioned American face on the street, you wonder how he got here. I think I’ll go back to London and see some Americans!”
Ross, Sam felt, was exaggerating. But when Ross had gone and he had roused himself from his lassitude for a walk — for a hot crawl — he felt lost and small and alien in the immense conflict of the steaming streets.
And he had no place to go. He realized that this capital, barbaric with gold and marble, provided every human necessity save a place, a cafe or a plaza or a not-too-lady-like tea-shop, in which he could sit and be human. Well! He could go to the Metropolitan Art Gallery, the Aquarium, the dusty benches of Central Park, or sit gently in a nice varnished pew in a Protestant Church.
People running with suit-cases nicked his legs, small active Jews caromed into him, flappers with faces powdered almost purple looked derisively at his wandering and bucolic mildness, a surf of sweaty undistinguishable people swept over him, shop-windows of incredible aloof expensiveness stared at him, and at every street-crossing he was held up by the wave of traffic, as he crept over to Fifth Avenue, down to Forty-second, past leering cheap-jack shops and restaurants, over to Sixth and back again to the Grand Central Station.
He stood contemplatively (he who a year ago would never have stood thus, but would have rushed with the most earnest of them) on the balcony overlooking the shining acres of floor of the Grand Central Station, like a roofed-over Place de la Concorde. Why, he wondered, was it that the immensity of Notre Dame or St. Paul’s did not dwarf and make ridiculous the figures of the worshippers as this vastness did the figures of travelers galloping to train-gates? Was it because the little people, dark and insignificant in the cathedrals, were yet dignified, self-possessed, seeking the ways of God, whereas here they were busy with the ludicrous activity of insects?
He fancied that this was veritably the temple of a new divinity, the God of Speed.
Of its adherents it demanded as much superstitious credulity as any of the outworn deities — demanded a belief that Going Somewhere, Going Quickly, Going Often, were in themselves holy and greatly to be striven for. A demanding God, this Speed, less good-natured than the elder Gods with their faults, their amours, their vanity so easily pleased by garlands and flattery; an abstract, faultless, and insatiable God, who once he had been offered a hundred miles an hour, straight-way demanded a hundred and fifty.
And with his motor cars Sam had contributed to the birth of this new religion, and in the pleasant leisure of Europe he had longed for its monastic asperities! He blasphemed against it now, longing for the shabbiest bar on the raggedest side street of Paris.
He shook his great shaggy head as he looked down on traveling-salesmen importantly parading before bag-laden red-caps, on fagged brokers with clanking bags of golf sticks, on fretful women, contemptuous overdressed women, and sleek young men in white knickerbockers. They seemed to him driven to madness by the mad God of Speed that themselves had created — and Sam Dodsworth had created.
Sam and Ross Ireland foolishly tried to take a taxicab to the theater. When they were already half an hour late, they got out and walked the last six blocks. They saw a number of delightful and naked young women, as naked as they would have been at Folies–Bergere.
“From the breaths around us, I guess there’s a few New Yorkers who haven’t heard about Prohibition,” sighed Ross, as they paced the street in the entr’acte. “Well, fortunately, the preachers haven’t enough influence with God yet to keep the girls from being naked. They’ll have to fix that up as soon as Prohibition really goes over — arrange to have the girls born with flannel nighties on. . . . Honestly, Sam, I don’t get these here United States. We let librarians censor all the books, and yet we have musical comedies like this — just as raw as Paris. We go around hollering that we’re the only bona fide friends of democracy and self-determination, and yet with Haiti and Nicaragua we’re doing everything we accused Germany of doing in Belgium, and — you mark my word — within a year we’ll be starting a Big Navy campaign for the purpose of bullying the world as Great Britain never thought of doing. We boast of scientific investigation, and yet we’re the only supposedly civilized country where thousands of supposedly sane citizens will listen to an illiterate clodhopping preacher or politician setting himself up as an authority on biology and attacking evolution.”
It was after the wearisome glare of the musical comedy, at a speak-easy which was precisely like an old-fashioned bar except that the whisky was bad, that Ross Ireland raged on:
“Yes, and to have a little more of our American paradox, we have more sentimental sobbing over poor de-uh mother in the movies, and more lynching of negroes, than would be possible anywhere else in the world! More space, and more crowded tenements; more hard-boiled pioneers, and more sickly discontented wives; more Nancies among young men; more highbrow lectures, and more laughing-hyena comic strips and more slang — Well, take me. I’m supposed to be a newspaperman. I’ve seen a lot — and read a whale of a lot more than I ever admit. I have ideas, and I even have a vocabulary. But I’m so American that if I ever admit I’m interested in ideas, if I ever phrase a sentence grammatically, if I don’t try to sound like a longshoreman, I’m afraid that some damned little garage-proprietor will think I’m trying to be pedantic! Oh, I’ve learned a lot about myself and my beloved America today!”
“Just the same, Ross, I prefer this country to —”
“Hell, so do I! Things I can remember, people I’ve talked to, knocking around this country, High Sierras to the Cape Cod cranberry-bogs. Old Pop Conover, that used to be a Pony Express Rider, going lickety-split, risking his life among the Indians — I remember him at eighty, the whitest old man you ever saw; lived in a little shack in my town in Iowa, baching it — had an old chair made out of a flour-barrel. Say, he’d tell us kids stories by the hour; he’d put up a tramp for the night; and he’d’ve received a king just the same way. Never occurred to him that he was any better than the tramp or any worse than a king. He was a real American. And I’ve seen the bunch at football games — nice clean youngsters. But we’re turning the whole thing into a six-day bicycle race. And with motor-cycles instead of the legs that we used to have once!”
With Ross Ireland talking always — assailing the American bustle except at such times as Sam complained of it, whereupon Ross would defend it furiously — they ambled to a Broadway cabaret.
It was called “The Georgia Cabin,” it specialized in Chicken Maryland and yams and beaten biscuit, and the orchestra played “Dixie” every half hour, to great cheering. Aside from Ross and Sam, everybody in the place was either a Jew or a Greek. It was so full of quaintness and expensiveness. The walls were in monstrous overblown imitation of a log cabin; and round the tiny fenced dancing-floor, so jammed that the dancers looked like rush-hour subway passengers moving in sudden amorous insanity, was the Broadway idea of a rail-fence.
The cover charge was two dollars apiece. They had two lemonades, at seventy-five cents each, with a quarter tip to the Hellenic waiter — at which he grumbled — and a quarter to the trim and cold-eyed hat-girl — at which she snapped, “Another pair of cheap skates!”
They said little as they marched toward their hotel. Over Sam, thick, palpable, like a shroud, was the lassitude he had felt in Paris. He was in a dream; nothing was real in all this harsh reality of trolley bells, furious elevated trains, swooping taxicabs, the jabbering crowds. The heat was churning up into a thunderstorm. Lightning revealed the cornices of the inhumanly lofty buildings. The whole air was menacing, yet he felt the menace indifferently, and heavily he said good night to Ross Ireland.
The storm exploded as he stood at the window of his hotel room. Every lightning flash threw into maniacal high relief the vast yellow wall of the building opposite, and its innumerable glaring windows; and in the darknesses between flashes he could imagine the building crashing over on him. It was terrifying as a volcanic eruption, even to Sam Dodsworth, who was not greatly given to fear. Yet terror could not break up the crust of dull loneliness which encased him.
He turned from the window with a lifeless step and went drearily to bed, to lie half awake. He muttered only, “This hustle of American life — regular battle — is it going to be too much for me, now I’m out of the habit?”
And, “Oh, God, Fran, I am so lonely for you!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52