You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

13. Service Entrance

The great apartment house in which the Jacks lived was not one of those structures which give to the Island of Manhattan its startling and fabulous quality — those cloud-soaring spires whose dizzy vertices and clifflike façades seem to belong to the sky rather than to the earth. These are the special shapes which flash in the mind of a European when he thinks about New York, and which inbound travellers, looking from a liner’s deck, see in all their appalling and inhuman loveliness sustained there lightly on the water. This building was none of these.

It was — just a building. It was not beautiful, certainly, but it was impressive because of its bulk, its squareness, its sheer mass. From the outside, it seemed to be a gigantic cube of city-weathered brick and stone, punctured evenly by its many windows. It filled an entire block, going through one street to the next.

When one entered it, however, one saw that it had been built in the form of a hollow square about a large central court. This court was laid out on two levels. The lower and middle part was covered with loose gravel, and raised above this level was a terrace for flower-beds, with a broad brick pavement flanking it on all four sides. Beyond the walk there was a span of arches which also ran the whole way round the square, giving the place something of the appearance of an enormous cloister. Leading off this cloister at regular intervals were the entrances to the apartments.

The building was so grand, so huge, so solid-seeming, that it gave the impression of having been hewn from the everlasting rock itself. Yet this was not true at all. The mighty edifice was really tubed and hollowed like a giant honeycomb. It was set on monstrous steel stilts, pillared below on vacancy, and sustained on curving arches. Its nerves, bones, and sinews went down below the level of the street to an underworld of storeyed basements, and below all these, far in the tortured rock, there was the tunnel’s depth.

When dwellers in this imperial tenement felt a tremor at their feet, it was only then that they remembered there were trains beneath them — sleek expresses arriving and departing at all hours of the day and night. Then some of them reflected with immense satisfaction on the cleverness with which New York had reversed an order that is fixed and immutable everywhere else in America, and had made it fashionable to live, not merely “beside the tracks”, but on top of them.

A little before seven o’clock that October evening, old John, who ran one of the service elevators in the building, came walking slowly along Park Avenue, ready to go on duty for his night’s work. He had reached the entrance and was just turning in when he was accosted by a man of thirty or thereabouts who was obviously in a state of vinous dilapidation.

“Say, Bud ——”

At the familiar words, uttered in a tone of fawning and yet rather menacing ingratiation, the face of the older man reddened with anger. He quickened his step and tried to move away, but the creature plucked at his sleeve and said in a low voice:

“I was just wonderin’ if you could spare a guy a ——”

“Na-h!” the old man snapped angrily. “I can’t spare you anything! I’m twice your age and I always had to work for everything I got! If you was any good you’d do the same!”

“Oh yeah?” the other jeered, looking at the old man with eyes that had suddenly gone hard and ugly.

“Yeah!” old John snapped back, and then turned and passed through the great arched entrance of the building, feeling that his repartee had been a little inadequate, though it was the best he had been able to manage on the spur of the moment. He was still muttering to himself as he started along the colonnade that led to the south wing.

“What’s the matter, Pop?” It was Ed, one of the day elevator men who spoke to him. “Who got your goat?”

“Ah-h,” John muttered, still fuming with resentment, “it’s these panhandling bums! One of ’em just stopped me outside the building and asked if I could spare a dime! A young fellow no older than you are, tryin’ to panhandle from an old man like me! He ought to be ashamed of himself! I told him so, too. I said: ‘If you was any good you’d work for it!’”

“Yeah?” said Ed, with mild interest.

“Yeah,” said John. “They ought to keep those fellows away from here. They hang round this neighbourhood like flies at a molasses barrel. They got no right to bother the kind of people we got here.”

There was just a faint trace of mollification in his voice as he spoke of “the kind of people we got here”. One felt that on this side reverence lay. “The kind of people we got here” were, at all odds, to be protected and preserved.

“That’s the only reason they hang round this place,” the old man went on. “They know they can play on the sympathy of the people in this building. Only the other night I saw one of ’em panhandle Mrs. Jack for a dollar. A big fellow, as well and strong as you are! I’d a good notion to tell her not to give him anything! If he wanted work, he could go and get him a job the same as you and me! It’s got so if ain’t safe for a woman in the house to take the dog round the block. Some greasy bum will be after her before she gets back. If I was the management I’d put a stop to it. A house like this can’t afford it. The kind of people we got here don’t have to stand for it!”

Having made these pronouncements, so full of outraged propriety and his desire to protect “the kind of people we got here” from further invasions of their trusting sanctity by these cadging frauds, old John, somewhat appeased, went in at the service entrance of the south wing, and in a few minutes he was at his post in the service elevator, ready for the night’s work.

John Enborg had been born in Brooklyn more than sixty years before, the son of a Norwegian seaman and an Irish serving-girl. In spite of this mixed parentage, one would have said without hesitation that he was “old stock” American — New England Yankee, most likely. Even his physical structure had taken on those national characteristics which are perhaps the result, partly of weather and geography, partly of tempo, speech, and local custom — a special pattern of the nerves and vital energies wrought out upon the whole framework of flesh and bone, so that, from whatever complex sources they are derived, they are recognised instantly and unmistakably as “American”.

In all these ways old John was “American”. He had the dry neck — the lean, sinewy, furrowed neck that is engraved so harshly with so much weather. He had the dry face, too, seamed and squeezed of its moisture; the dry mouth, not brutal, certainly, but a little tight and stiff and woodenly inflexible; and the slightly outcropping lower jaw, as if the jarring conflicts in the life around him had hardened the very formations of the bone into this shape of unyielding tenacity. He was not much above the average height, but his whole body had the same stringy leanness of his neck and face, and this made him seem taller. The old man’s hands were large and bony, corded with heavy veins, as if he had done much work with them. Even his voice and manner of talking were distinctively “American”. His speech was spare, dry, nasal, and semi-articulate. It could have passed with most people as the speech of a Vermonter, although it did not have any pronounced twang. What one noticed about it especially was its Yankee economy and tartness, which seemed to indicate a chronic state of sour temper. But he was very far from being an ill-natured old man, though at times he did appear to be. It was just his way. He had a dry humour and really loved the rough and ready exchange of banter that went on among the younger elevator men around him, but he concealed his softer side behind a mask of shortness and sarcastic denial.

This was evident now as Herbert Anderson came in. Herbert was the night operator of the passenger elevator in the south entrance. He was a chunky, good-natured fellow of twenty-four or five, with two pink, mottled, absurdly fresh spots on his plump cheeks. He had lively and good-humoured eyes, and a mass of crinkly brownish hair of which one felt he was rather proud. He was John’s special favourite in the whole building, although one might not have gathered this from the exchange that now took place between them.

“Well, what do you say, Pop?” cried Herbert as he entered the service elevator and poked the old man playfully in the ribs. “You haven’t seen anything of two blondes yet, have you?”

The faint, dry grin about John Enborg’s mouth deepened a little almost to a stubborn line, as he swung the door to and pulled the lever.

“Ah-h,” he said sourly, almost in disgust, “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!”

The car descended and stopped, and he pulled the door open at the basement floor.

“Sure you do!” Herbert flung back vigorously as he walked over to the line of lockers, peeled off his coat, and began to take off his collar and tie. “You know those two blondes I been tellin’ you about, doncha, Pop?” By this time he was peeling the shirt off his muscular shoulders, then he supported himself with one hand against the locker while he stooped to take off his shoe.

“Ah-h,” said the old man, sour as before, “you’re always tellin’ me about something. I don’t even pay no attention to it. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

“Oh yeah?” said Herbert with a rising, ironical inflection. He bent to unlace his other shoe.

“Yeah,” said John dryly.

From the beginning the old man’s tone had been touched with this note of dry disgust, yet somehow he gave the impression that he was secretly amused by Herbert’s chatter. For one thing, he made no move to depart. Instead, he had propped himself against the side of the open elevator door, and, his old arms folded loosely into the sleeves of the worn grey alpaca coat which was his “uniform”, he was waiting there with the stubborn little grin round his mouth as if he was enjoying the debate and was willing to prolong it indefinitely.

“So that’s the kind of guy you are?” said Herbert, stepping out of his neatly-pressed trousers and arranging them carefully on one of the hangers which he had taken from the locker. He hung the coat over the trousers and buttoned it. “Here I go and get you all fixed up and you run out on me. O.K., Pop.” His voice was now shaded with resignation. “I thought you was a real guy, but if you’re goin’ to walk out on a party after I’ve gone to all the trouble, I’ll have to look for somebody else.”

“Oh yeah?” said old John.

“Yeah,” said Herbert in the accent proper to this type of repartee. “I had you all doped out for a live number, but I see I picked a dead one.”

John let this pass without comment. Herbert stood for a moment in his socks and underwear, stiffening his shoulders, twisting, stretching, bending his arms upwards with tense muscular effort, and ending by scratching his head.

“Where’s old Organisin’ Hank?” Herbert said presently. “Seen him to-night?”

“Who?” said John, looking at him with a somewhat bewildered expression.

“Henry. He wasn’t at the door when I come in, and he ain’t down here. He’s gonna be late.”

“Oh!” The word was small but it carried a heavy accent of disapproval. “Say!” The old man waved a gnarled hand stiffly in a downward gesture of dismissal. “That guy’s a pain in the neck!” He spoke the words with the dry precision old men have when they try to “keep up with” a younger man by talking unaccustomed slang. “A pain in the neck!” he repeated. “No, I ain’t seen him to-night.”

“Oh, Hank’s all right when you get to know him,” said Herbert cheerfully. “You know how a guy is when he gets all burned up about somethin’— he gets too serious about it — he thinks everybody else in the world ought to be like he is. But he’s O.K. He’s not a bad guy when you get him talkin’ about somethin’ else.”

“Yeah!” cried John suddenly and excitedly, not in agreement, but by way of introduction to something he had just remembered. “You know what he says to me the other day? ‘I wonder what all the rich mugs in this house would do,’ he says, ‘if they had to get down and do a hard day’s work for a livin’ once in a while.’ That’s what he says to me! ‘And these old bitches’— yeah!” cried John, nodding his head angrily —”‘these old bitches,’ he says, ‘that I got to help in and out of cars all night long, and can’t walk up a flight of stairs by themselves — what if they had to get down on their hands and knees and scrub floors like your mother and my mother did?’ That’s the way he goes on all the time!” cried John indignantly —“and him a-gettin’ his livin’ from the people in this house, and takin’ tips from them — and then talkin’ about them like he does! — Nah-h!” John muttered to himself and rapped his fingers on the wall. “I don’t like that way of talkin’! If he feels that way, let him get out! I don’t like that fellow.”

“Oh,” said Herbert easily and indifferently, “Hank’s not a bad guy, Pop. He don’t mean half of it. He’s just a grouch.”

By this time, with the speed and deftness born of long experience, he was putting on the starched shirt-front which was a part of his uniform on duty, and buttoning the studs. Stooping and squinting in the small mirror that was hung absurdly low on the wall, he said half-absently:

“So you’re goin’ to run out on me and the two blondes? You can’t take it, hunh?”

“Ah-h,” said old John with a return to his surly dryness, “you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. I had more girls in my day than you ever thought of.”

“Yeah?” said Herbert.

“Yeah,” said John. “I had blondes and brunettes and every other kind.”

“Never had any red-heads, did you, Pop?” said Herbert, grinning. “Yeah, I had red-heads, too,” said John sourly. “More than you had, anyway.”

“Just a rounder, hunh?” said Herbert. “Just an old petticoat-chaser.”

“Nah-h, I ain’t no rounder or no petticoat-chaser. Hm!” John grunted contemptuously. “I’ve been a married man for forty years. I got grown-up children older’n you are!”

“Why, you old two-timer!” Herbert exclaimed, and turned on him with mock indignation. “Braggin’ to me about your blondes and red-heads, and then boastin’ that you’re a family man! Why, you ——”

“Nah-h,” said John, “I never done no such thing. I wasn’t talkin’ about now — but then! That’s when I had ’em-forty years ago.”

“Who?” said Herbert innocently. “Your wife and children?”

“Ah-h,” said John disgustedly, “get along with you. You ain’t goin’ to get my goat. I’ve forgot more about life than you ever heard of, so don’t think you’re goin’ to make a monkey out of me with your smart talk.”

“Well, you’re makin’ a big mistake this time, Pop,” said Herbert with an accent of regret. He had drawn on the neat grey trousers of his uniform, adjusted his broad white stock, and now, half squatting before the mirror, he was carefully adjusting the coat about his well-set shoulders. “Wait till you see ’em-these two blondes. I picked one of ’em out just for you.”

“Well, you needn’t pick out any for me,” said John sourly. “I got no time for such foolishness.”

At this point Henry, ‘the night doorman, came hurriedly in from the stairway and began rattling the key in his locker door.

“What do you say, pal?” Herbert turned to him and cried boisterously. “I leave it to you. Here I get Pop all dated up with a couple of hot blondes and he runs out on me. Is that treatin’ a guy right or not?”

Henry did not answer. His face was hard and white and narrow, his eyes had the look and colour of blue agate, and he never smiled. He took off his coat and hung it in the locker.

“Where were you?” he said.

Herbert looked at him, startled.

“Where was I when?” he said.

“Last night.”

“That was my night off,” said Herbert.

“It wasn’t our night off,” said Henry. “We had a meetin’. They was askin’ about you.” He turned and directed his cold eyes towards the old man. “And you, too,” he said in a hard tone. “You didn’t show up either.”

Old John’s face had frozen. He had shifted his position and begun to drum nervously and impatiently with his old fingers upon the side of the elevator. This quick, annoyed tapping betrayed his tension, but his eyes were flinty as he returned Henry’s look, and there was no mistaking his dislike of the doorman. Theirs was, in fact, the mutual hostility that is instinctive to two opposite types of personality.

“Oh yeah?” John said in a hard voice.

Henry answered briefly: “Yeah.” And then, holding his cold look levelled like a pointed pistol, he said: “You come to the union meetin’s like everybody else, see? Or you’ll get bounced out. You may be an old man, but that goes for you like it does for all the rest.”

“Is that so?” said John sarcastically.

“Yeah, that’s so.” His tone was flat and final.

“Jesus!” Herbert’s face was red with crestfallen embarrassment, and he stammered out an excuse. “I forgot all about it — honest I did! I was just goin’——”

“Well, you’re not supposed to forget,” said Henry harshly, and he looked at Herbert with an accusing eye.

“I— I’m all up on my dues,” said Herbert feebly.

“That ain’t the question. We ain’t talkin’ about dues.” For the first time there was indignant passion in the hard voice as he went on earnestly: “Where the hell do you suppose we’d be if everybody ran out on us every time we hold a meetin’? What’s the use of anything if we ain’t goin’ to stick together?”

He was silent now, looking almost sullenly at Herbert, whose red face had the hang-dog air of a guilty schoolboy. But when Henry spoke again his tone was gentler and more casual, and somehow it suggested that underneath his hard exterior he had a genuine affection for his errant comrade.

“I guess it’s O.K. this time,” he said quietly. “I told the guys you had a cold and I’d get you there next time.”

He said nothing more, and began swiftly to take off his clothes.

Herbert looked flustered but relieved. For a moment he seemed about to speak, but changed his mind. He stooped and took a final appraising look at himself in the small mirror, and then, walking quickly towards the elevator with a return of his former buoyancy, he said:

“Well, Pop, O.K. — let’s go!” He took his place in the car and went on with a simulation of regret: “Too bad you’re goin’ to miss out on the blondes, Pop. But maybe you’ll change your mind when you get a look at ’em.”

“No, I won’t change my mind, neither,” said John with sour implacability as he slammed the door. “About them or about you.”

Herbert looked at the old man and laughed, the pink spots in his cheeks flushed with good humour, his lively eyes dancing.

“So that’s the kind of guy you think I am?” he said, and gently poked the old fellow in the ribs with his closed fist. “So you don’t believe me, hunh?”

“Ah-h, I wouldn’t believe you on a stack of bibles,” said John grouchily. He pushed the lever forwards and the elevator started up. “You’re a lot of talk — that’s what you are. I don’t listen to anything you say:” He stopped the elevator and opened the heavy door.

“So that’s the kind of friend you are?” said Herbert, stepping out into the corridor. Full of himself, full of delight with his own humour, he winked at two pretty, rosy-cheeked Irish maids who were waiting to go up, and, jerking his thumb towards the old man, he said: “What are you goin’ to do with a guy like this, anyway? I go and get him all dated up with a blonde and he won’t believe me when I tell him so. He calls me a big wind.”

“Yeah, that’s what he is,” said the old man grimly to the smiling girls. “He’s a lot of wind. He’s always talkin’ about his girls and I bet he never had a girl in his life. If he saw a blonde he’d run like a rabbit.”

“Just a pal!” said Herbert with mock bitterness, appealing to the maids. “O.K., then, Pop. Have it your own way. But when those blondes get here, tell ’em to wait till I come back. You hear?”

“Well, you’d better not be bringin’ any of ’em round here,” said John. He shook his white, head doggedly and his whole manner was belligerent, but it was evident that he was enjoying himself hugely. “I don’t want any of ’em comin’ in this building — blondes or brunettes or red-heads or any of ’em,” he muttered. “If they do, you won’t find ’em when you come back. I’ll tell ’em to get out. I’ll handle ’em for you, all right.”

He’s a friend of mine!” said Herbert bitterly to the two girls, and jerked his thumb towards the old man again. He started to walk away.

“I don’t believe you, anyhow,” John called after his retreating figure. “You ain’t got no blondes. You never did have . . . You’re a momma’s boy!” he cried triumphantly as an afterthought, as if he had now hit upon the happiest inspiration of the evening. “That’s what you are!”

Herbert paused at the door leading into the main corridor and looked back menacingly at the old man, but the look was belied by the sparkle in his eyes.

“Oh yeah?” he shouted.

He stood and glared fiercely at the old fellow for a moment, then winked at the two girls, passed through the door, and pressed the button of the passenger elevator, whose operator he was to relieve for the night.

“That fellow’s just a lot of talk,” said John sourly as the maids stepped into the service car and he closed the door. “Always gassin’ about the blondes he’s goin’ to bring round — but I ain’t never seen none of ’em. Nah-h!” he muttered scornfully, almost to himself as the car started up. “He lives with his mother up in the Bronx, and he’d be scared stiff if a girl ever looked at him.”

“Still, Herbert ought to have a girl,” one of the maids said in a practical tone of voice. “Herbert’s a nice boy, John.”

“Oh, he’s all right, I guess,” the old man muttered grudgingly. “And a nice-looking boy, too,” the other maid now said.

“Oh, he’ll do,” said John; and then abruptly: “What are you folks doin’ to-night, anyway? There’s a whole lot of packages waitin’ to come up.”

“Mrs. Jack is having a big party,” one of the girls said. “And, John, will you bring everything up as soon as you can? There may be something there that we need right away.”

“Well,” he said in that half-belligerent, half-unwilling tone that was an inverted attribute of his real good nature. “I’ll do the best I can. Seems like all of them are givin’ their big parties to-night,” he grumbled. “It goes on sometimes here till two or three o’clock in the morning. You’d think all some people had to do was give parties all the time. It’d take a whole regiment of men just to carry up the packages. Yeah!” he muttered to himself. “And what d’you get? If you ever got so much as a word of thanks ——”

“Oh, John,” one of the girls now said reproachfully, “you know Mrs. Jack is not like that! You know yourself ——”

“Oh, she’s all right, I reckon,” said John, unwillingly as before, yet his tone had softened imperceptibly. “If all of them was like her,” he began — but then the memory of the panhandler came back to him, and he went on angrily: “She’s too kind-hearted for her own good! Them panhandling bums — they swarm round her like flies every time she leaves the building. I saw one the other night get a dollar out of her before she’d gone twenty feet. She’s crazy to put up with it. I’m goin’ to tell her so, too, when I see her!”

The old man’s face was flushed with outrage at the memory. He had opened the door on the service landing, and now, as the girls stepped out, he muttered to himself again:

“The kind of people we got here oughtn’t to have to put up with it . . . Well, then, I’ll see,” he said concedingly, as one of the maids unlocked the service door and went in. “I’ll get the stuff up to you.”

For a second or two after the inner door had closed behind the maids, the old man stood there looking at it — just a dull, blank sheet of painted metal with the apartment number on it — and his glance, had anyone seen it, would somehow have conveyed an impression of affectionate regard. Then he closed the elevator door and started down.

Henry, the doorman, was just coming up the basement stairway as the old man reached the ground floor. Uniformed, ready for his night’s work, he passed the service elevator without speaking. John called to him.

“If they try to deliver any packages out front,” he said, “you send ’em round here.”

Henry turned and looked at the old man unsmilingly, and said curtly: “What?”

“I say,” repeated John, raising his voice a trifle shrilly, for the man’s habitual air of sullen harshness angered him, “if they try to make any deliveries out front, send ’em back to the service entrance.”

Henry continued to look at him without speaking, and the old man added:

“The Jacks are givin’ a party to-night. They asked me to get everything up in a hurry. If there are any more deliveries, send ’em back here.”

“Why?” said Henry in his flat, expressionless voice, still staring at him.

The question, with its insolent suggestion of defied authority —someone’s authority, his own, the management’s, or the authority of “the kind of people we got here”— infuriated the old man. A wave of anger, hot and choking, welled up in him, and before he could control himself he rasped out:

“Because that’s where they ought to come — that’s why! Haven’t you been workin’ around places of this kind long enough to know how to do? Don’t you know the kind of people we got here don’t want every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a package to deliver runnin’ up in the front elevator all the time, mixin’ in with all the people in the house?”

“Why?” said Henry with deliberate insolence. “Why don’t they?”

“Because,” old John shouted, his face now crimson, “if you ain’t got sense enough to know that much, you ought to quit and get a job diggin’ ditches somewhere! You’re bein’ paid to know it! That’s part of your job as doorman in a house like this! If you ain’t got sense enough by now to do what you’re supposed to do, you’d better quit — that’s why! — and give your job to somebody who knows what it’s all about!”

Henry just looked at him with eyes that were as hard and emotionless as two chunks of agate. Then:

“Listen,” he said in a toneless voice. “You know what’s goin’ to happen to you if you don’t watch out? You’re gettin’ old, Pop, and you’d better watch your step. You’re goin’ to be caught in the street some day worryin’ about what’s goin’ to happen to the people in this place if they have to ride up in the same elevator with a delivery boy. You’re goin’ to worry about them gettin’ contaminated because they got to ride up in the same car with some guy that carries a package. And you know what’s goin’ to happen, to you, Pop? I’ll tell you what’s goin’ to happen. You’ll be worryin’ about it so much that you ain’t goin’ to notice where you’re goin’. And you’re goin’ to get hit, see?”

The voice was so unyielding in its toneless savagery that for a moment — just for a moment — the old man felt himself trembling all over. And the voice went on:

“You’re goin’ to get hit, Pop. And it ain’t goin’ to be by nothin’ small or cheap. It ain’t goin’ to be by no Ford truck or by no taxi-cab. You’re goin’ to get hit by somethin’ big and shiny that cost a lot of dough. You’ll get hit by at least a Rolls Royce. And I hope it belongs to one of the people in this house. You’ll die like any other worm, but I want you to push off knowin’ that it was done expensive — by a big Rolls Royce — by one of the people in this house. I just want you to be happy, Pop.”

Old John’s face was purple. The veins in his forehead stood out like corded ropes. He tried to speak, but no words came. At length, all else having failed him, he managed to choke out the one retort which, in all its infinitely variable modulations, always served perfectly to convey his emotions.

“Oh yeah!” he snarled dryly, and this time the words were loaded with implacable and unforgiving hate.

“Yeah!” said Henry tonelessly, and walked off.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02