The tragic light of evening falls upon the huge and rusty jungle of South Brooklyn. It falls without glare or warmth upon the faces of all the men with dead eyes and flesh of tallow-grey as they lean upon their window-sills at the sad, hushed end of day.
If at such a time you walk down this narrow street, between the mean and shabby houses, past the eyes of all the men who lean there quietly at their open windows in their shirt-sleeves, and turn in at the alley here and follow the two-foot strip of broken concrete pavement that skirts the alley on one side, and go to the very last shabby house down at the end, and climb up the flight of worn steps to the front entrance and knock loudly at the door with your bare knuckles (the bell is out of order) and then wait patiently until someone comes, and ask whether Mr. George Webber lives here, you will be informed that he most certainly does, and that if you will just come in and go down this stairway to the basement and knock at the door there on your right, you will probably find him in. So you go down the stairway to the damp and gloomy basement hall, thread your way between the dusty old boxes, derelict furniture, and other lumber stored there in the passage, rap on the door that has been indicated to you, and Mr. Webber himself will open it and usher you right into his room, his home, his castle.
The place may seem to you more like a dungeon than a room that a man would voluntarily elect to live in. It is long and narrow, running parallel to the hall from front to rear, and the only natural light that enters it comes through two small windows rather high up in the wall, facing each other at the opposite ends, and these are heavily guarded with iron bars, placed there by some past owner of the house to keep the South Brooklyn thugs from breaking in.
The room is furnished adequately but not so luxuriously as to deprive it of a certain functional and Spartan simplicity. In the back half there is an iron bed with sagging springs, a broken-down dresser with a cracked mirror above it, two kitchen chairs, and a steamer trunk and some old suitcases that have seen much use. At the front end, under the yellow glow of an electric light suspended from the ceiling by a cord, there is a large desk, very much scarred and battered, with the handles missing on most of the drawers, and in front of it there is a straight-backed chair made out of some old, dark wood. In the centre, ranged against the walls, where they serve to draw the two ends of the room together into aesthetic unity, stand an ancient gate-legged table, so much of its dark green paint flaked off that the dainty pink complexion of its forgotten youth shows through all over, a tier of book-shelves, unpainted, and two large crates or packing-cases, their thick top boards pried off to reveal great stacks of ledgers and of white and yellow manuscript within. On top of the desk, on the table, on the book-shelves, and all over the floor are scattered, like fallen leaves in autumn woods, immense masses of loose paper with writing on every sheet, and everywhere are books, piled up on their sides or leaning crazily against each other.
This dark cellar is George Webber’s abode and working quarters. Here, in winter, the walls, which sink four feet below the level of the ground, sweat continuously with clammy drops of water. Here, in summer, it is he who does the sweating.
His neighbours, he will tell you, are for the most part Armenians, Italians, Spaniards, Irishmen, and Jews — in short, Americans. They live in all the shacks, tenements, and slums in all the raw, rusty streets and alleys of South Brooklyn.
And what is that you smell?
Oh, that! Well, you see, he shares impartially with his neighbours a piece of public property in the vicinity; it belongs to all of them in common, and it gives to South Brooklyn its own distinctive atmosphere. It is the old Gowanus Canal, and that aroma you speak of is nothing but the huge symphonic stink of it, cunningly compacted of unnumbered separate putrefactions. It is interesting sometimes to try to count them. There is in it not only the noisome stenches of a stagnant sewer, but also the smells of melted glue, burned rubber, and smouldering rags, the odours of a boneyard horse, long dead, the incense of putrefying offal, the fragrance of deceased, decaying cats, old tomatoes, rotten cabbage, and prehistoric eggs.
And how does he stand it?
Well, one gets used to it. One can get used to anything, just as all these other people do. They never think of the smell, they never speak of it, they’d probably miss it if they moved away.
To this place, then, George Webber has come, and here “holed in” with a kind of dogged stubbornness touched with desperation. And you will not be far wrong if you surmise that he has come here deliberately, driven by a resolution to seek out the most forlorn and isolated hiding spot that he could find.
Mr. Marple, a gentleman who has a room on the second floor, comes stumbling down the darkened basement stairway with a bottle in his hand and knocks upon George Webber’s door.
Mr. Marple comes in, introduces himself, does the right thing with the bottle, sits down, and begins to make talk.
“Well, now, Mr. Webber, how d’yah like that drink I mixed for yah?”
“Oh, I like it, I like it.”
“Well, now, if yah don’t, I want yah t’come right out an’ say so.”
“Oh, I would, I would.”
“I mean I’d like to know. I’d appreciate yah tellin’ me. What I mean is, I made that stuff myself from a little private formuler I got — I wouldn’t buy no stuff from a bootlegger — I wouldn’t take no chance wit’ the bastards. I buy the alcohol that goes into that drink from a place I know, an’ I always know what I’m gettin’— d’yah know what I mean?”
“Yes, I certainly do.”
“But I’d like to know what yah think of it, I’d appreciate yah tellin’ me.”
“Oh, it’s fine, it couldn’t be better.”
“I’m glad yah like it, an’ you’re sure I didn’t disturb yah?”
“Oh, no, not at all.”
“Because I was on my way in when I sees your light there in the winder, so I says to myself, now that guy may think I’ve got an orful nerve buttin’ in like this but I’m gonna stop an’ get acquainted an’ ast him if he’d like a little drink.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“But if I disturbed yah I wantcha t’say so.”
“Oh, no, not at all.”
“Because here’s the way it is wit’ me. I’m interested in youman nature — I’m a great student of psychology — I can read faces the minute I look at a guy — it’s somethin’ that I always had — I guess that’s why I’m in the insurance game. So when I sees a guy that interests me I wanta get acquainted wit’ him an’ get his reactions to things. So when I sees your light I says to myself, he may tell me to get the hell outa there but there ain’t no harm in tryin’.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“Now Mr. Webber, I think I’m a pretty good judge of character ——”
“Oh, I’m sure you are.”
“— an’ I been lookin’ at yah an’ sorta sizin’ yah up while yah been sittin’ there. Yah didn’t know I was sizin’ yah up but that’s what I been doin’ all the time yah been sittin’ there because I’m a great student of youman nature, Mr. Webber, an’ I gotta size up all grades an’ classes every day in my business —you know — I’m in the insurance game. An’ I wanna ast yah a question. Now if it’s too personal I wantcha t’come right out an’ say so, but if yah don’t mind answerin’ I’m gonna ast it to yah.”
“Not at all. What is it?”
“Well, Mr. Webber, I already reached my own conclusions, but I’m gonna ast it to yah just t’see if it don’t bear me out. Now what I’m gonna ast yah — an’ yah don’t have to answer if yah don’t want to — is — What’s your line? — What business are yah in? Now yah don’t need to tell me if it’s too personal.”
“Not at all. I’m a writer.”
“A writer. I wrote a book once. I’m trying to write another one now.”
“Well now, it may surprise yah but that’s just what I figgered out myself. I says to myself, now there’s a guy, I says, that’s in some kind of intelleckshul work where he’s got t’use his head. He’s a writer or a newspaperman or in the advertisin’ business. Y’see I’ve always been a great judge of youman nature — that’s my line.”
“Yes, I see.”
“An’ now I wanna tell yah somethin’ else, Mr. Webber. You’re doin’ the thing yah was cut out for, you’re doin’ the thing yah was born to do, it’s what yah been preparin’ to do all your life sinct yah was a kid — am I right or wrong?”
“Oh, I guess you’re right.”
“An’ that’s the reason you’re gonna be a big success at it. Stick to writin’, Mr. Webber. I’m a great judge of youman nature an’ I know what I’m talkin’ about. Just stick to the thing yah always wanted to be an’ yah’ll get there. Now some guys never find theirselves. Some guys never know what they wanna be. That’s the trouble wit’ some guys. Now wit’ me it’s different. I didn’t find myself till I was a grown man. You’d have t’laugh, Mr. Webber, if I told yah what it was I wanted t’be when I was a kid.”
“What was it, Mr. Marple?”
“Say, Mr. Webber — y’know it’s funny — yah won’t believe me — but up to the time I was about twenty years old, a grown man, I was crazy to be a railway engineer. No kiddin’. I was nuts about it. An’ I’d a-been just crazy enough to’ve gone ahead an’ got a job on the railway if the old man hadn’t yanked me by the collar an’ told me t’snap out of it. Yah know I’m a Down–Easter by birth — don’t talk like it any more — I been here too long — but that’s where I grew up. My old man was a plumber in Augusta, Maine. So when I tells him I’m gonna be a locomotive engineer he boots me one in the seat of the pants an’ tells me I ain’t no such thing. ‘I’ve sent yah to school,’ he says, ‘you’ve had ten times the schoolin’ that I had, an’ now yah tell me that you’re gonna be a railway hogger. Well, you’re not,’ the old man says, ‘you’re gonna be one member of the fambly that’s comin’ home at night wit’ clean hands an’ a white collar. Now you get the hell outa here an’ hunt yah up a job in some decent high-class business where yah’ll have a chanct t’advance an’ associate wit’ your social ekals.’ Jesus! It was a lucky thing for me he took that stand or I’d never a-got where I am today. But I was good an’ sore about it at the time. An’ say, Mr. Webber — you’re gonna laugh when I tell yah this one — I ain’t actually over the darn thing yet. No kiddin’. When I see one of these big engines bargin’ down the track I still get that funny crawly feelin’ I usta have when I was a kid an’ looked at ’em. The guys at the office had t’laugh about it when I told ’em, an’ now when I come in they call me Casey Jones. — Well, what d’yah say yah have another little snifter before I go?”
“Thanks, I’d like to, but maybe I’d better not. I’ve still got a little work I ought to do before I turn in.”
“Well now, Mr. Webber, I know just how it is. An’ that’s the way I had yah sized up from the first. That guy’s a writer, I says, or in some sort of intelleckshul occupation where he’s got to use his head — was I right or wrong?”
“Oh, you were right.”
“Wel!, I’m glad to’ve metcha, Mr. Webber. Don’t make yourself a stranger round here. Yah know, a guy gets sorta lonely sometimes. My wife died four years ago so I been livin’ upstairs here ever sinct — sorta figgered that a single guy didn’t need no more room than I got here. Come up to see me. I’m interested in youman nature an’ 1 like to talk to people an’ get their different reactions. So any time yah feel like chewin’ the rag a bit, drop in.”
“Oh, I will, I will.”
“Good night, Mr. Webber.”
“Good night, Mr. Marple.”
Good night. Good night. Good night.
Across the basement hall, in another room similar to George Webber’s, lived an old man by the name of Wakefield. He had a son somewhere in New York who paid his rent, but Mr. Wakefield rarely saw his son. He was a brisk and birdy little man with a chirping, cheerful voice; and, although he was almost ninety, he always seemed to be in good health and was still immensely active. His son had provided him with a room to live in, and he had a little money of his own — a few dollars a month from a pension — enough to supply his meagre wants; but he lived a life of utter loneliness, seeing his son only on the occasion of a holiday or a rare visit, and the rest of the time living all by himself in his basement room.
Yet he had as brave and proud a spirit as any man on earth. He longed desperately for companionship, but he would have died rather than admit he was lonely. So independent was he, and so sensitive, that, while he was always courteous and cheerful, his tone when he responded to a greeting was a little cold and distant, lest anyone should think he was too forward and eager. But, once satisfied of one’s friendliness, no one could respond more warmly or more cordially than old man Wakefield.
George grew fond of him and liked to talk with him, and the old man would invite him eagerly into his part of the basement and proudly display his room, which he kept with a soldierlike neatness. He was a veteran of the Union Army in the Civil War, and his room was filled with books, records, papers, and old clippings bearing on the war and on the part his regiment had played in it. Although he was alert and eager towards the life round him, and much too brave and hopeful a spirit to live mournfully in the past, the Civil War had been the great and central event in old man Wakefield’s life. Like many of the men of his generation, both North and South, it had never occurred to him that the war was not the central event in everyone’s life. Because it was so with him, he believed that people everywhere still lived and thought and talked about the war all the time.
He was a leading figure in the activities of his Grand Army Post, and was always bustling about with plans and projects for the coming year. It seemed to him that the Grand Army organisation, whose thinning ranks of old and feeble men he still saw with the proud eyes of forty or fifty years before, was the most powerful society in the nation, and that its word of warning or stern reproof was enough to make all the kings of the earth quake and tremble in their boots. He was bitterly scornful and would bristle up immediately at mention of the American Legion: he fancied slights and cunning trickery on the part of this body all the time, and he would ruffle up like a rooster when he spoke of the Legionnaires, and say in an angry, chirping voice:
“It’s jealousy! Nothing in the world but sheer tar-nation jealousy— that’s what it is!”
“But why, Mr. Wakefield? Why should they be jealous of you?”
“Because we reely did some soldierin’— that’s why!” he chirped angrily. “Because they know we fit the Rebels — yes! and fit ’em good — and licked ’em, too!” he cackled triumphantly —“in a war that was a war! . . . Pshaw!” he said scornfully, in a lowered voice, looking out the window with a bitter smile and with eyes that had suddenly grown misty. “What do these fellows know about a war? — Some bob-tail — raggedy — two-by-two— little jackleg feller — of a Legionnary!” He spat the words out with a malignant satisfaction, breaking at the end into a vindictive cackle. “Standin’ to their necks all day in some old trench and never gettin’ within ten miles of the enemy!” he sneered. “If they ever saw a troop of cavalry, I don’t know what they’d make of it! I reckon they’d think it was the circus come to town!” he cackled. “A war! A war! Hell-fire, that warn’t no war!” he cried derisively. “If they wanted to see a war, they should’ve been with us at the Bloody Angle! But, pshaw!” he said. “They’d a-run like rabbits if they’d been there! The only way you could a-kept ’em would’ve been to tie ’em to a tree!”
“Don’t you think they could have beaten the Rebels, Mr. Wakefield?”
“Beat ’em?” he shrilled. “Beat ’em! Why, boy, what are you talkin’ about? . . . Hell! If Stonewall Jackson ever started for that gang, he’d run ’em ragged! Yes, sir! They’d light out so fast they’d straighten out all the bends of the road as they went by!” cried old man Wakefield, cackling. “Pshaw!” he said quietly and scornfully again. “They couldn’t do it! It ain’t in ’em! . . . But I’ll tell you this much!” he cried suddenly in an excited voice. “We’re not goin’ to put up with it much longer! The boys have had just about as much of it as they can stand! If they try to do us like they done last year — pshaw!” he broke off again, and looked out the window shaking his head —“Why it’s all as plain as the nose on your face! It’s jealousy — just plain, confounded jealousy— that’s all in the world it is!”
“What is, Mr. Wakefield?”
“Why, the way they done us last year!” he cried. “Puttin’ us way back there at the tail-end of the pee-rade, when by all the rights — as everybody knows — we should’ve come first! But we’ll fix ’em!” he cried warningly. “We’ve got a way to fix ’em!” he said with a triumphant shake of the head. “I know the thing we’re goin’ to do this year,” he cried, “if they try another trick like that on us!”
“What are you going to do, Mr. Wakefield?”
“Why,” he cackled, “we won’t pee-rade! We simply won’t pee-rade! We’ll tell ’em they can hold their derned pee-rade without us!” he chirped exultantly. “And I reckon that’ll fix ’em! Oh yes! That’ll bring ’em round, or I miss my guess!” he crowed.
“It ought to, Mr. Wakefield.”
“Why, boy,” he said solemnly, “if we ever did a thing like that, there would be a wave of protest — a wave of protest”— he cried with a sweeping gesture of the arm, as his voice rose strongly —“from here to Californy! . . . The people wouldn’t stand for it!” he cried. “They’d make those fellers back down in a hurry!”
And as George left him, the old man would come with him to the door, shake his hand warmly and, with an eager and lonely look in his old eyes, say:
“Come again, boy! I’m always glad to see you! . . . I got stuff in here — photygraphs an’ books, an’ such as that about the war — that you ain’t seen yet. No, nor no one else!” he cackled. “For no one else has got ’em! . . . Just let me know when you’re comin’ an’ I’ll be here.”
Slowly the years crept by and George lived alone in Brooklyn. They were hard years, desperate years, lonely years, years of interminable writing and experimentation, years of exploration and discovery, years of grey timelessness, weariness, exhaustion, and self-doubt. He had reached the wilderness period of his life and was hacking his way through the jungles of experience. He had stripped himself down to the brutal facts of self and work. These were all he had.
He saw himself more clearly now than he had ever done before, and, in spite of living thus alone, he no longer thought of himself as a rare and special person who was doomed to isolation, but as a man who worked and who, like other men, was a part of life. He was concerned passionately with reality. He wanted to see things whole, to find out everything he could, and then to create out of what he knew the fruit of his own vision.
One criticism that had been made of his first book still rankled in his mind. An unsuccessful scribbler turned critic had simply dismissed the whole book as a “barbaric yawp”, accusing Webber of getting at things with his emotions rather than with his brains, and of being hostile towards the processes of the intellect and “the intellectual point of view.” These charges, if they had any truth in them, seemed to George to be the kind of lifeless half-truth that was worse than no truth at all. The trouble with the so-called “intellectuals” was that they were not intellectual enough, and their point of view more often than not had no point, but was disparate, arbitrary, sporadic, and confused.
To be an “intellectual” was, it seemed, a vastly different thing from being intelligent. A dog’s nose would usually lead him towards what he wished to find, or away from what he wished to avoid: this was intelligent. That is, the dog had the sense of reality in his nose. But the “intellectual” usually had no nose, and was lacking in the sense of reality. The most striking difference between Webber’s mind and the mind of the average “intellectual” was that Webber absorbed experience like a sponge, and made use of everything that he absorbed. He really learned constantly from experience. But the “intellectuals” of his acquaintance seemed to learn nothing. They had no capacity for rumination and digestion. They could not reflect.
He thought over a few of them that he had known:
There was Haythorpe, who when George first knew him was an esthete of the late baroque in painting, writing all the arts, author of one-act costume plays —“Gesmonder! Thy hands pale chalices of hot desire!” Later he became an esthete of the primitives — the Greek, Italian, and the German; then esthete of the nigger cults — the wood sculptures, coon songs, hymnals, dances, and the rest; still later, esthete of the comics — of cartoons, Chaplin, and the Brothers Marx; then of Expressionism; then of the Mass; then of Russia and the Revolution; at length, esthete of homo-sexuality; and finally, death’s esthete — suicide in a graveyard in Connecticut.
There was Collingswood, who, fresh out of Harvard, was not so much the esthete of the arts as of the mind. First, a Bolshevik from Beacon Hill, practitioner of promiscuous, communal love as the necessary answer to “bourgeois morality”; then back to Cambridge for post-graduate study at the feet of Irving Babbitt — Collingswood is now a Humanist, the bitter enemy of Rousseau, Romanticism, and of Russia (which is, he now thinks, Rousseau in modern form); the playwright, next — New Jersey, Beacon Hill, or Central Park seen in the classic unities of the Greek drama; at length, disgusted realist —“all that’s good in modern art or letters is to be found in advertisements”; then a job as a scenario writer and two years in Hollywood — all now is the moving picture, with easy money, easy love affairs, and drunkenness; and finally, back to Russia, but with his first love lacking — no sex triflings now, my comrades — we who serve the Cause and wait upon the day lead lives of Spartan abstinence — what was the free life, free love, enlightened pleasure of the proletariat ten years ago is now despised as the contemptible debauchery of “bourgeois decadence”.
There was Spurgeon from the teaching days at the School for Utility Cultures — good Spurgeon — Chester Spurgeon of the Ph.D. — Spurgeon of “the great tradition”— thin-lipped Spurgeon, exstudent of Professor Stuart Sherman, and bearer-onwards of the Master’s Torch. Noble-hearted Spurgeon, who wrote honeyed flatteries of Thornton Wilder and his Bridge—“The tradition of the Bridge is Love, just as the tradition of America and of Democracy is Love. Hence”— Spurgeon hences — Love grows Wilder as the years Bridge on across America. Oh, where now, good Spurgeon, “intellectual” Spurgeon — Spurgeon whose thin lips and narrowed eyes were always so glacial prim on Definitions? Where now, brave intellect, by passion uninflamed? Spurgeon of the flashing mind, by emotion unimpulsed, is now a devoted leader of the intellectual Communists (See Spurgeon’s article entitled: “Mr. Wilder’s Piffle”, in the New Masses). — So, Comrade Spurgeon, hail! Hail, Comrade Spurgeon — and most heartily, my bright-eyed Intellectual, farewell!
Whatever George Webber was, he knew he was not an “intellectual”. He was just an American who was looking hard at the life round him, and sorting carefully through all the life he had ever seen and known, and trying to extract some essential truth out of this welter of his whole experience. But, as he said to his friend and editor, Fox Edwards:
“What is truth? No wonder jesting Pilate turned away. The truth, it has a thousand faces — show only one of them, and the whole truth flies away! But how to show the whole? That’s the question . . .
“Discovery in itself is not enough. It’s not enough to find out what things are. You’ve also got to find out where they come from, where each brick fits in the wall.”
He always came back to the wall.
“I think it’s like this,” he said. “You see a wall, you look at it so much and so hard that one day you see clear through it. Then, of course, it’s not just one wall any longer. It’s every wall that ever was.”
He was still spiritually fighting out the battle of his first book, and all the problems it had raised. He was still searching for a way. At times he felt that his first book had taught him nothing — not even confidence. His feelings of hollow desperation and self-doubt seemed to grow worse instead of better, for he had now torn himself free from almost every personal tie which had ever bound him, and which formerly had sustained him in some degree with encouragement and faith. He was left, therefore, to rely almost completely on his own resources.
There was also the insistent, gnawing consciousness of work itself, the necessity of turning towards the future and the completion of a new book. He was feeling, now as never before, the inexorable pressure of time. In writing his first book, he had been unknown And obscure, and there had been a certain fortifying strength in that, for no one had expected anything of him. But now the spotlight of publication had been turned upon him, and he felt it beating down with merciless intensity. He was pinned beneath the light — he could not crawl out of it. Though he had not won fame, still he was known now. He had been examined, probed, and talked about. He felt that the world was looking at him with a critic eye.
It had been easy in his dreams to envision a long and fluent sequence of big books, but now he was finding it a different matter to accomplish them. His first book had been more an act of utterance than an act of labour. It was an impassioned expletive of youth — something that had been pent up in him, something felt and seen and imagined and put down at white-hot heat. The writing of it had been a process of spiritual and emotional evacuation. But that was behind him now, and he knew he should never try to repeat it. Henceforth his writing would have to come from unending labour and preparation.
In his effort to explore his experience, to extract the whole, essential truth of it, and to find a way to write about it, he sought to recapture every particle of the life he knew down to its minutest details. He spent weeks and months trying to put down on paper the exactitudes of countless fragments — what he called: “the dry, caked colours of America”— how the entrance to a subway looked, the design and webbing of the elevated structure, the look and feel of an iron rail, the particular shade of rusty green with which so many things are painted in America. Then he tried to pin down the foggy colour of the brick of which so much of London is constructed, the look of an English doorway, of a French window, of the roofs and chimney-pots of Paris, of a whole street in Munich — and each of these foreign things he then examined in contrast to its American equivalent.
It was a process of discovery in its most naked, literal, and primitive terms. He was just beginning really to see thousands of things for the first time, to see the relations between them, to see here and there whole series and systems of relations. He was like a scientist in some new field of chemistry who for the first time realises that he has stumbled upon a vast new world, and who will then pick out identities, establish affiliations, define here and there the outlines of sub-systems in crystalline union, without yet being aware what the structure of the whole is like, or what the final end will be.
The same processes now began to inform his direct observation of the life round him. Thus, on his nocturnal ramblings about New York, he would observe the homeless men who prowled in the vicinity of restaurants, lifting the lids of garbage cans and searching round inside for morsels of rotten food. He saw them everywhere, and noticed how their numbers increased during the hard and desperate days of 1932. He knew what kind of men they were, for he talked to many of them; he knew what they had been, where they had come from, and even what kind of scraps they could expect to dig out of the garbage cans. He found out the various places all over the city where such men slept at night. A favourite rendezvous was a corridor of the subway station at Thirty-third Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan. There one night he counted thirty-four huddled together on the cold concrete, wrapped up in sheathings of old newspaper.
It was his custom almost every night, at one o’clock or later, to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and night after night, with a horrible fascination, he used to go to the public latrine or “comfort station” which was directly in front of the New York City Hall. One descended to this place down a steep flight of stairs from the street, and on bitter nights he would find the place crowded with homeless men who had sought refuge there. Some were those shambling hulks that one sees everywhere, in Paris as well as New York, in good times as well as bad — old men, all rags and bags and long white hair and bushy beards stained dirty yellow, wearing tattered overcoats in the cavernous pockets of which they carefully stored away all the little rubbish they lived on and spent their days collecting in the streets — crusts of bread, old bones with rancid shreds of meat still clinging to them, and dozens of cigarette-butts. Some were the “stumble bums” from the Bowery, criminal, fumed with drink or drugs, or half insane with “smoke”. But most of them were just flotsam of the general ruin of the time — honest, decent, middle-aged men with faces seamed by toil and want, and young men, many of them mere boys in their teens, with thick, unkempt hair. These were the wanderers from town to town, the riders of freight trains, the thumbers of rides on highways, the uprooted, unwanted male population of America. They drifted across the land and gathered in the big cities when winter came, hungry, defeated, empty, hopeless, restless, driven by they knew not what, always on the move, looking everywhere for work, for the bare crumbs to support their miserable lives, and finding neither work nor crumbs. Here in New York, to this obscene meeting-place, these derelicts came, drawn into a common stew of rest and warmth and a little surcease from their desperation.
George had never before witnessed anything to equal the indignity and sheer animal horror of the scene. There was even a kind of devil’s comedy in the sight of all these filthy men squatting upon those open, doorless stools. Arguments and savage disputes and fights would sometimes break out among them over the possession of these stools, which all of them wanted more for rest than for necessity. The sight was revolting, disgusting, enough to render a man forever speechless with very pity.
He would talk to the men and find out all he could about them, and when he could stand it no more he would come out of this hole of filth and suffering, and there, twenty feet above it, he would see the giant hackles of Manhattan shining coldly in the cruel brightness of the winter night. The Woolworth Building was not fifty yards away, and, a little farther down were the silvery spires and needles of Wall Street, great fortresses of stone and steel that housed enormous hanks. The blind injustice of this contrast seemed the most brutal part of the whole experience, for there, all round him in the cold moonlight, only a few blocks away from this abyss of human wretchedness and misery, blazed the pinnacle of power where a large portion of the entire world’s wealth was locked in mighty vaults.
They were now dosing up the restaurant. The tired waitresses were racking the chairs upon the tables, completing the last formalities of their hard day’s work in preparation for departure. At the cash register the proprietor was totting up the figures of the day’s take, and one of the male waiters hovered watchfully near the table, in a manner politely indicating that while he was not in a hurry he would be glad if the last customer would pay his bill and leave.
George called for his check and gave the man some money. He took it and in a moment returned with the change. He pocketed his tip and said: “Thank you, sir.” Then as George said good night and started to get up and leave, the waiter hesitated and hung round uncertainly as if there was something he wanted to say but scarcely knew whether he ought to say it or not.
George looked at him inquiringly, and then, in a rather embarrassed tone, the waiter said:
“Mr. Webber . . . there’s . . . something I’d like to talk over with you sometime . . . I— I’d like to get your advice about something — that is, if you have time,” he added hastily and almost apologetically.
George regarded the waiter with another inquiring look,-in which the man evidently read encouragement, for now he went on quickly, in a manner of almost beseeching entreaty:
“It’s — it’s about a story.”
The familiar phrase awakened countless weary echoes in Webber’s memory. It also resolved that hard and honest patience with which any man who ever sweated to write a living line and to earn his bread by the hard, uncertain labour of his pen will listen, as an act of duty and understanding, to any other man who says he has a tale to tell. His mind and will wearily composed themselves, his face set in a strained smile of mechanical anticipation, and the poor waiter, thus encouraged, went on eagerly:
“It’s — it’s a story a guy told me several years ago. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The guy was a foreigner,” said the waiter impressively, as if this fact was enough to guarantee the rare colour and fascinating interest of what he was about to reveal. “He was an Armenian,” said the waiter very earnestly. “Sure! He came from over there!” He nodded his head emphatically. “And this story that he told me was an Armenian story,” said the waiter with solemn emphasis, and then paused to let this impressive fact sink in. “It was a story that he knew about — he told it to me — and I’m the only other guy that knows about it,” said the waiter, and paused again, looking at his patron with a very bright and feverish eye.
George continued to smile with wan encouragement, and in a moment the waiter, after an obvious struggle with his soul, a conflict between his desire to keep his secret and to tell it, too, went on:
“Gee! You’re a writer, Mr. Webber, and you know about these things. I’m just a dumb guy working in a restaurant — but if I could put it into words — if I could get a guy like you who knows how it’s done to tell the story for me — why — why”— he struggled with himself, then burst out enthusiastically —“there’d be a fortune in it for the both of us!”
George felt his heart sink still lower. It was turning out just as he knew it would. But he still continued to smile pallidly. He cleared his throat in an undecided fashion, but then said nothing. And the waiter, taking silence for consent, now pressed on impetuously:
“Honest, Mr. Webber — if I could get somebody like you to help me with this story — to write it down for me the way it ought to beI’d — I’d”— for a moment the waiter struggled with his lower nature, then magnanimity got the better of him and he cried out with t he decided air of a man who is willing to make a generous bargain and stick to it —“I’d go fifty-fifty with him! I’d — I’d be willing to give him half! . . . And there’s a fortune in it!” he cried. “I go to the movies and I read True Story Magazine— and I never seen a story like it! It’s got ’em all beat! I’ve thought about it for years, ever since the guy told it to me — and I know I’ve got a gold mine here if I could only write it down! . . . It’s — it’s ——”
Now, indeed, the waiter’s struggle with his sense of caution became painful to watch. He was evidently burning with a passionate desire to reveal his secret, but he was also obviously tormented by doubts and misgivings lest he should recklessly give away to a comparative stranger a treasure which the other might appropriate to his own use. I I is manner was very much that of a man who has sailed strange seas and seen, in some unknown coral island, the fabulous buried cache of forgotten pirates’ plundering, and who is now being torn between two desperate needs — his need of partnership, of outward help, and his imperative need of secrecy and caution. The fierce interplay of these two powers discrete was waged there on the open battlefield of the waiter’s countenance. And in the end he took the obvious way out. Like an explorer who will take from his pocket an uncut gem of tremendous size and value and cunningly hint that in a certain place he knows of there are many more like it, the waiter decided to tell a little part of his story without revealing it.
“I— I can’t tell you the whole thing to-night,” he said apologetically. “Some other night, maybe, when you’ve got more time. But just to give you an idea of what’s in it”— he looked round stealthily to make sure he was in no danger of being overheard, then bent over and lowered his voice to an impressive whisper —“just to give you an idea, now — there’s one scene in the story where a woman puts an advertisement in the paper that she will give a ten-dollar gold piece and as much liquor as he can drink to any man who comes round to see her the next day!” After imparting this sensational bit of information, the waiter regarded his patron with glittering eyes. “Now!” said the waiter, straightening up with a gesture of finality. “You never heard of anything like that, did you? You ain’t never seen that in a story!”
George, after a baffled pause, admitted feebly that he had not. Then, when the waiter continued to regard him feverishly, with a look that made it plain that he was supposed to say something more, he inquired doubtfully whether this interesting event had really happened in Armenia.
“Sure!” cried the waiter, nodding vigorously. “That’s what I’m telling you! The whole thing happens in Armenia!” He paused again, torn fiercely between his caution and his desire to go on, his feverish eyes almost burning holes through his questioner. “It’s — it’s —” he struggled for a moment more, then surrendered; abjectly —“well, I’ll tell you,” he said quietly, leaning forward, with his hands resting on the table in an attitude of confidential intimacy. “The idea of the story runs like this. You got this rich dame to begin with, see?”
He paused and looked at George inquiringly. George did not: know what was expected of him, so he nodded to show that his min had grasped this important fact, and said hesitatingly:
“Sure! Sure!” The waiter nodded. “This dame comes from over there — she’s got a big pile of dough — I guess she’s the richest dame in Armenia. And then she falls for this guy, see?” he went on. “He’s nuts about her, and he comes to see her every night. The way the guy told it to me, she lives up at the top of this big house — so every night the guy comes and climbs up there to see her — oh, a hell of a long ways up”— the waiter said —“thirty floors or more!”
“In Armenia?” George asked feebly.
“Sure!” cried the waiter, a little irritably. “That’s where it all takes place! That’s what I’m telling you!”
He paused and looked searchingly at George, who finally asked, with just the proper note of hesitant thoughtfulness, why the lover had had to climb up so far.
“Why,” said the waiter impatiently, “because the dame’s old man wouldn’t let him in! That was the only way the guy could get to her! The old man shut her up way up there at the top of the house because he didn’t want the dame to get married! . . . But then,” he went on triumphantly, “the old man dies, see? He dies and leaves all his dough to this dame — and then she ups and marries this guy!”
Dramatically, with triumph written in his face, the waiter paused to let this startling news soak into the consciousness of his listener. Then he continued:
“They lived together for a while — the dame’s in love with him — and for a year or two they’re sitting pretty. But then the guy begins to drink — he’s a booze hound, see? — only she don’t know it — she’s been able to hold him down for a year or two after they get married . . . Then he begins to step out again . . . The first thing you know he’s staying out all night and running round with a lot of hot blondes, see? . . . Well, then, you see what’s coming now, don’t you?” said the waiter quickly and eagerly.
George had no notion, but he nodded his head wisely.
“Well, that’s what happens,” said the waiter. “The first thing you know the guy ups and leaves the dame and takes with him a lot of her dough and joolry . . . He just disappears — just like the earth had opened and swallowed him up!” the waiter declared, evidently pleased with his poetic simile. “He leaves her cold, and the poor dame’s almost out of her head. She does everything — she hires detectives — she offers rewards — she puts ads in the paper begging him to come back . . . But it’s no use — she can’t find him — the guy’s lost . . . Well, then,” the waiter continued, “three years go by while the poor dame sits and eats her heart out about this guy . . . And then”— here he paused impressively, and it was evident that he was now approaching the crisis —“then she has an idea!” He paused again, briefly, to allow this extraordinary accomplishment on the part of his heroine to be given due consideration, and in a moment, very simply and quietly, he concluded: “She opens up a night club.”
The waiter fell silent now, and stood at ease with his hands clasped quietly before him, with the modest air of a man who has given his all and is reasonably assured it is enough. It now became compellingly apparent that his listener was supposed to make some appropriate comment, and that the narrator could not continue with his tale until this word had been given. So George mustered his failing strength, moistened his dry lips with the end of his tongue, and finally said in a halting voice:
“In — in Armenia?”
The waiter now took the question, and the manner of its utterance, as signs of his listener’s paralyzed surprise. He nodded his head victoriously and cried:
“Sure! You see, the dame’s idea is this — she knows the guy’s a booze hound and that sooner or later he’ll come to a place where there’s lots of bar-flies and fast women. That kind always hang together — sure they do! . . . So she opens up this joint — she sinks a lot of dough in it — it’s the swellest joint they got over there. And then she puts this ad in the paper.”
George was not sure that he had heard aright, but the waiter was looking at him with an expression of such exuberant elation that he took a chance and said:
“Why,” said the waiter, “this come-on ad that I was telling you about. You see, that’s the big idea — that’s the plan the dame dopes out to get him back. So she puts this ad in the paper saying that any man who comes to her joint the next day will be given a ten-dollar gold piece and all the liquor he can drink. She figures that will bring him. She knows the guy is probably down and out by this time and when he reads this ad he’ll show up . . . And that’s just what happens. When she comes down next morning she finds a line twelve blocks long outside, and sure enough, here’s this guy the first one in the line. Well, she pulls him out of the line and tells the cashier to give all the rest of ’em their booze and their ten bucks, but she tells this guy he ain’t gonna get nothing. ‘What’s the reason I ain’t?’ he says — you see, the dame is wearing a heavy veil so he don’t recognise her. Well, she tells him she thinks there’s something phoney about him — gives him the old line, you know — tells him to come upstairs with her so she can talk to him and find out if he’s O.K . . . Do you get it?”
George nodded vaguely. “And then what?” he said.
“Why,” the waiter cried, “she gets him up there — and then”— he leaned forward again with fingers resting on the table, and his voice sank to an awed whisper —“she — takes — off — her — veil!”
There was a reverential silence as the waiter, still leaning forward with his fingers arched upon the table, regarded his listener with bright eyes and a strange little smile. Then he straightened up slowly, stood erect, still smiling quietly, and a long, low sigh like the coming on of evening came from his lips, and he was still. The silence drew itself out until it became painful, and at length George squirmed wretchedly in his chair and asked:
“And then — then what?”
The waiter was plainly taken aback. He stared in frank astonishment, stunned speechless by the realisation that anybody could be stupid.
“Why”— he finally managed to say with an expression of utter disillusion —“that’s all! Don’t you see? That’s all there is! The dame takes off her veil — he recognises her — and there you are! . . . She’s found him! . . . She’s got him back! . . . They’re together again! . . . That’s the story!” He was hurt, impatient, almost angry as he went on: “Why, anybody ought to be able to see ——”
“Good night, Joe.”
The last waitress was just going out and had spoken to the waiter as she passed the table. She was a blonde, slender girl, neatly dressed Her voice was quiet and full of the casual familiarity of her daily work and association; it was a pleasant voice, and it was a little tired. Her face, as she paused a moment, was etched in light and shadow, and there were little pools of violet beneath her clear grey eyes. Her face had the masklike fragility and loveliness, the almost hair-drawn fine-MSS, that one often sees in young people who have lived in the great city and who have never had wholly enough of anything except work and their own hard youth. One felt instantly sorry for the girl, because one knew that her face would not long be what it was now.
The waiter, interrupted in the flood of his impassioned argument, had been alittle startled by the casual intrusion of the girl’s low voice turned towards her. When he saw who it was, his manner changed at once, and his own seamed face softened a little with instinctive and unconscious friendliness.
“Oh, hello, Billie. Good night, kid.”
She went out, and the sound of her brisk little heels clacked away on the hard pavement. For a moment more the waiter continued to look after her, and then, turning back to his sole remaining customer with a queer, indefinable little smile hovering in the hard lines about his mouth, he said very quietly and casually, in the tone men use to speak of things done and known and irrecoverable:
“Did you see that kid? . . . She came in here about two years ago and got a job. I don’t know where she came from, but it was some little hick town somewhere. She’d been a chorus girl — a hoofer in some cheap road show — until her legs gave out . . . You find a lot of ’em in this game — the business is full of ’em . . . Well, she worked here for about a year, and then she began going with a cheap gigolo who used to come in here. You know the kind — you can smell ’em a mile off — they stink. I could’ve told her! But, hell, what’s the use? They won’t listen to you — you only get yourself in dutch all round — they got to find out for themselves — you can’t teach ’em. So I left it alone — that’s the only way . . . Well, six or eight months ago, some of the girls found out she was pregnant. The boss let her out. He’s not a bad guy — but, hell, what can you expect? You can’t keep ’em round a place like this when they’re in that condition, can you? . . . She had the kid three months ago, and then she got her job back. I understand she’s put the kid in a home somewhere. I’ve never seen it, but they say it’s a swell kid, and Billie’s crazy about it — goes out there to see it every Sunday . . . She’s a swell kid, too.”
The waiter was silent for a moment, and there was a far-off look of tragic but tranquil contemplation in his eyes. Then, quietly, wearily, he said:
“Hell, if I could tell you what goes on here every day — the things you see and hear — the people you meet and all that happens. Jesus, I get sick and tired of it. Sometimes I’m so fed up with the whole thing that I don’t care if I never see the joint again. Sometimes I get to thinking how swell it would be not to have to spend your whole life waiting on a lot of mugs — just standing round and waiting on ’em and watching ’em come in and out . . . and feeling sorry for some little kid who’s fallen for some dope you wouldn’t wipe your feet on . . . and wondering just how long it’ll be before she gets the works . . . Jesus, I’m fed up with it!”
Again he was silent. His eyes looked off into the distance, and his face was set in that expression of mildly cynical regret and acceptance that one often notices in people who have seen much of life, and experienced its hard and seamy side, and who know that there is very little they can do or say. At last he sighed deeply, shook himself, threw off the mood, and resumed his normal manner.
“Gee, Mr. Webber,” he said with a return of his former eagerness, “it must be great to be able to write books and stories — to have the gift of gab — all that flow of language — to go anywhere you like — to work when you want to! Now, take that story I was telling you about,” he said earnestly. “I never had no education — but if I could only get some guy like you to help me — to write it down the way it ought to be-honest, Mr. Webber, it’s a great chance for somebody — there’s a fortune in it — I’d go fifty-fifty!” His voice was pleading now. “A guy I knew one time, he told it to me — and me and him are the only two that knows it. The guy was an Armenian, like I said, and the whole thing happened over there . . . There’d be a gold mine in it if I only knew how to do it.”
It was long after midnight, and the round disc of the moon was sinking westward over the cold, deserted streets of slumbering Manhattan.
The party was in full swing now.
The gold and marble ballroom of the great hotel had been converted into a sylvan fairyland. In the centre a fountain of classic nymphs and fauns sent up its lighted sprays of water, and here and there about the floor were rustic arbors with climbing roses trailing over them, heavy with scented blossoms. Flowering hot-house trees in tubs were banked round the walls, the shining marble pillars were wreathed about with vines and garlands, and overhead gay lanterns had been strung to illuminate the scene with their gentle glow. The whole effect was that of an open clearing in a forest glade upon Midsummer Night where Queen Titania had come to hold her court and revels.
It was a rare, exotic spectacle, a proper setting for the wealthy, carefree youth for whom it had been planned. The air was heavy with the fragrance of rich perfumes, and vibrant with the throbbing, pulsing rhythms of sensuous music. Upon the polished floor a hundred lovely girls in brilliant evening gowns danced languidly in the close embrace of pink-cheeked boys from Yale and Harvard, their lithe young figures accentuated smartly by the black and white of faultless tailoring.
This was the coming-out party of a fabulously rich young lady, and the like of it had not been seen since the days before the market crashed. The papers had been full of it for weeks. It was said that her father had lost millions in the debacle, but it was apparent that he still had a few paltry dollars left. So now he was doing the right thing, the expected thing, the necessary and inescapable thing, for his beautiful young daughter, who would one day inherit all that these ruinous times had left him of his hard-earned savings. To-night she was being “presented to Society” (whose members had known her since her birth), and all “Society” was there.
And from this night on, the girl’s smiling face would turn up with monotonous regularity in all the rotogravure sections of the Sunday papers, and daily the nation would be kept posted on all the momentous trivia of her life — what she ate, what she wore, where she went, who went with her, what night clubs had been honoured by her presence, what fortunate young gentleman had been seen accompanying her to what race track, and what benefits she had sponsored and poured tea for. For one whole year, from now until another beautiful and rich young lady from next season’s crop of beautiful and rich young ladies was chosen by the newspaper photographers to succeed her as America’s leading debutante, this gay and care-free creature would be for Americans very much what a royal princess is for Englishmen, and for very much the same reason — because she was her father’s daughter, and because her father was one of the rulers of America. Millions would read about her every move and envy her, and thousands would copy her as far as their means would let them. They would buy cheap imitations of her costly dresses, hats, and underclothes, would smoke the same cigarettes, use the same lipsticks, eat the same soups, sleep on the same mattresses that she had allowed herself to be pictured wearing, smoking, using, eating, and sleeping on in the handsome coloured advertisements on the back covers of magazines — and they would do it, knowing full well that the rich young lady had set these fashions for a price — was she not her father’s daughter? — all, of course, for the sake of sweet charity and commerce.
Outside the great hotel, on the Avenue in front of it and on all the side streets in the near vicinity, sleek black limousines were parked. In some of them the chauffeurs slouched dozing behind their wheels. Others had turned on their inside lights and sat there reading the pages of the tabloids. But most of them had left their cars and were knotted together in little groups, smoking, talking, idling the time away until their services should be needed again.
On the pavement near the entrance of the hotel, beside the huge marquee which offered shelter from the wind, the largest group of them, neat in their liveried uniforms, had gathered in debate. They were discussing politics and theories of international economy, and the chief disputants were a plump Frenchman with a waxed moustache, whose sentiments were decidedly revolutionary, and an American, a little man with corky legs, a tough, seamed face, the beady eyes of a bird, and the quick, impatient movements of the city. As George Webber came abreast of them, brought thither by the simple chance of his nightly wanderings, the argument had reached its furious climax, and he stopped a while to listen.
The scene, the situation, and the contrast between the two principal debaters made the whole affair seem utterly grotesque. The plump Frenchman, his cheeks glowing with the cold and his own excitement, was dancing about in a frenzy, talking and gesticulating volubly. He would lean forward with thumb and forefinger uplifted and closed daintily in a descriptive circle — a gesture that eloquently expressed the man’s conviction that the case he had been presenting for immediate and bloody world revolution was complete, logical, unshakable, and beyond appeal. When any of the others interposed an objection, he would only grow more violent and inflamed.
At last his little English began to break down under the strain imposed upon it. The air about him fairly rang with objurgations, expletives, impassioned cries of “Mais oui! . . . Absolument! . . . C’est la vérité!”— and with laughs of maddened exasperation, as if the knowledge that anyone could be so obtuse as not to see it as he saw it was more than he could endure.
“Mais non! Mais non!” he would shout. “Vous avez tort! . . . Mais c’est stupide!” he would cry, throwing his plump arms up in a gesture of defeat, and turning away as if he could stand it no longer and was departing — only to return immediately and begin all over again.
Meanwhile, the chief target of this deluge, the little American with the corky legs and the birdy eyes, let him go on. He just leaned up against the building, took an occasional puff at his cigarette, and gave the Frenchman a steady look of cynical impassivity. At last he broke in to say:
“O.K . . . O.K., Frenchy . . . When you get through spoutin’, maybe I’ll have somethin’ to say.”
“Seulement un mot!” replied the Frenchman, out of breath. “One vord!” he cried impressively, drawing himself up to his full five feet three and holding one finger in the air as if he were about to deliver Holy Writ —“I ‘ave to say one vord more!”
“O.K.! O.K.!” said the corky little American with cynical weariness. “Only don’t take more than an hour and a half to say it!”
Just then another chauffeur, obviously a German, with bright blue eyes and a nut-cracker face, rejoined the group with an air of elated discovery.
“Noos! I got noos for you!” he said. “I haf been mit a drifer who hass in Rooshia liffed, and he says that conditions there far worser are ——”
“Non! Non!” the Frenchman shouted, red in the face with anger and protest. “Pas vrai! . . . Ce n’est par possible!”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” the American said, tossing his cigarette away with a gesture of impatience and disgust. “Why don’t you guys wake up? This ain’t Russia! You’re in America! The trouble with you guys,” he went on, “is that you’ve been over there all your life where you ain’t been used to nothin’— and just as soon as you get over here where you can live like a human bein’ you want to tear it all down.”
At this, others broke in, and the heated and confused dialogue became more furious than ever. But the talk just went round and round in circles.
George walked away into the night.
The lives of men who have to live in our great cities are often tragically lonely. In many more ways than one, these dwellers in the hive are modern counterparts of Tantalus. They are starving to death in the midst of abundance. The crystal stream flows near the lips but always falls away when they try to drink of it. The vine, rich-weighted with its golden fruit, bends down, comes near, but springs back when they reach to touch it.
Melville, at the beginning of his great fable, Moby Dick, tells how the city people of his time would, on every occasion that was afforded them, go down to the dock, to the very edges of the wharf, and stand there looking out to sea. In the great city of today, however, there is no sea to look out to, or, if there is, it is so far away, so inaccessible, walled in behind such infinite ramifications of stone and steel, that the effort to get to it is disheartening. So now, when the city man looks out, he looks out on nothing but crowded vacancy.
Does this explain, perhaps, the desolate emptiness of city youth — those straggling bands of boys of sixteen or eighteen that one can always see at night or on a holiday, going along a street, filling the air with raucous jargon and senseless cries, each trying to outdo the others with joyless catcalls and mirthless quips and jokes which are so feeble, so stupidly inane, that one hears them with strong mixed feelings of pity and of shame? Where here, among these lads, is all the merriment, high spirits, and spontaneous gaiety of youth? These creatures, millions of them, seem to have been born but half-made up, without innocence, born old and stale and dull and empty.
Who can wonder at it? For what a world it is that most of them were born into! They were suckled on darkness, and weaned on violence and noise. They had to try to draw out moisture from the cobble-stones, their true parent was a city street, and in that barren universe no urgent sails swelled out and leaned against the wind, they rarely knew the feel of earth beneath their feet and no birds sang, t heir youthful eyes grew hard, unseeing, from being stopped for ever by a wall of masonry.
In other times, when painters tried to paint a scene of awful desolation, they chose the desert or a heath of barren rocks, and there would try to picture man in his great loneliness — the prophet in the desert, Elijah being fed by ravens on the rocks. But for a modern painter, the most desolate scene would be a street in almost any one of our great cities on a Sunday afternoon.
Suppose a rather drab and shabby street in Brooklyn, not quite tenement perhaps, and lacking therefore even the gaunt savagery of I overty, but a street of cheap brick buildings, warehouses, and garages, with a cigar store or a fruit stand or a barber shop on the corner. Suppose a Sunday afternoon in March — bleak, empty, slaty grey. And suppose a group of men, Americans of the working class, dressed in t heir “good” Sunday clothes — the cheap machine-made suits, the new cheap shoes, the cheap felt hats stamped out of universal grey. Just suppose this, and nothing more. The men hang round the corner before the cigar store or the closed barber shop, and now and then, through the bleak and empty street, a motor-car goes flashing past, and in the distance they hear the cold rumble of an elevated train. For hours they hang round the corner, waiting — waiting — waiting ——
Nothing. Nothing at all. And that is what gives the scene its special quality of tragic loneliness, awful emptiness, and utter desolation. Every modern city man is familiar with it. And yet — and yet ——
It is also true — and this is a curious paradox about America — that these same men who stand upon the corner and wait around on Sunday afternoons for nothing are filled at the same time with an almost quenchless hope, an almost boundless optimism, an almost indestructible belief that something is bound to turn up, something is sure to happen. This is a peculiar quality of the American soul, and it contributes largely to the strange enigma of our life, which is so incredibly mixed of harshness and of tenderness, of innocence and of crime, of loneliness and of good fellowship, of desolation and of exultant hope, of terror and of courage, of nameless fear and of soaring conviction, of brutal, empty, naked, bleak, corrosive ugliness, and of beauty so lovely and so overwhelming that the tongue is stopped by it, and the language for it has not yet been uttered.
How explain this nameless hope that seems to lack all reasonable foundation? I cannot. But if you were to go up to this fairly intelligent-looking truck-driver who stands and waits there with his crowd, and if you put to him your question, and if he understood what you were talking about (he wouldn’t), and if he were articulate enough to frame in words the feelings that are in him (he isn’t)— he might answer you with something such as this:
“Now is duh mont’ of March, duh mont’ of March — now it is Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn in duh mont’ of March, an’ we stand upon cold corners of duh day. It’s funny dat dere are so many corners in duh mont’ of March, here in Brooklyn where no corners are. Jesus! On Sunday in duh mont’ of March we sleep late in duh mornin’ den we get up an’ read duh papers — dub funnies an’ duh sportin’ news. We eat some chow. An’ den we dress up in duh afternoon, we leave our wives, we leave dub funnies littered on duh floor, an’ go outside in Brooklyn in duh mont’ of March an’ stand around upon ten t’ousand corners of duh day. We need a corner in, duh mont’ of March, a wall to stand to, a shelter an’ a door. Dere must be some place inside in duh mont’ of March, but we never found it. So we stand around on corners where duh sky is cold an’ ragged still wit’ winter, in our good clothes we stand around wit’ a lot of udder guys we know, before dub, barber shop, just lookin’ for a door.”
Ah, yes, for in summer:
It is so cool and sweet to-night, a million feet are walking here across the jungle web of Brooklyn in the dark, and it’s so hard now to remember that it ever was the month of March in Brooklyn and that we couldn’t find a door. There are so many million doors tonight. There’s a door for everyone to-night, all’s open to the air, all’s interfused to-night: remote the thunder of the elevated trains on Fulton Street, the rattling of the cars along Atlantic Avenue, the glare of Coney Island seven miles away, the mob, the racket, and the barkers shouting, the cars swift-shuttling through the quiet streets, the people swarming in the web, lit here and there with livid blurs of light, the voices of the neighbours leaning at their windows, harsh, soft, all interfused. All’s illusive in the liquid air to-night, all mixed in with the radios that blare from open windows. And there is something over all to-night, something fused, remote, and trembling, made of all of this, and yet not of it, upon the huge and weaving ocean of the night in Brooklyn — something that we had almost quite forgotten in the month of March. What’s this? — a sash raised gently? — a window? — a near voice on the air? — something swift and passing, almost captured, there below? — there in the gulf of night the mournful and yet thrilling voices of the tugs? — the liner’s blare? Herethere — some otherwhere — was it a whisper? — a woman’s call? — a sound of people talking behind the screens and doors in Flatbush? It trembles in the air throughout the giant web to-night, as fleeting as a step — near — as soft and sudden as a woman’s laugh. The liquid air is living with the very whisper of the thing that we are looking for to-night throughout America — the very thing that seemed so bleak, so vast, so cold, so hopeless, and so lost as we waited in out good clothes on ten thousand corners of the day in Brooklyn in the month of March.
If George Webber had never gone beyond the limits of the neighbourhood in which he lived, the whole chronicle of the earth would have been there for him just the same. South Brooklyn was a universe.
The people in the houses all round him, whose lives in the cold, raw days of winter always seemed hermetic, sterile, and remote, as shut out from him as though they were something sealed up in a tin, became in spring and summer so real to him it seemed that he had known them from his birth. For, as the days and nights grew warmer, everybody kept their windows open, and all the dwellers in these houses conducted their most intimate affairs in loud and raucous voices which carried to the street and made the casual passer-by a confidant of every family secret.
God knows he saw squalor and filth and misery and despair enough, violence and cruelty and hate enough, to crust his lips for ever with the hard and acrid taste of desolation. He found a sinister and demented Italian grocer whose thin mouth writhed in a servile smile as he cringed before his customers, and the next moment was twisted in a savage snarl as he dug his clawlike fingers into the arm of his wretched little son. And on Saturdays the Irishmen would come home drunk, and then would beat their wives and cut one another’s throats, and the whole course and progress of their murderous rages would be published nakedly from their open windows with laugh, shout, scream, and curse.
But he found beauty in South Brooklyn, too. There was a tree that leaned over into the narrow alley where he lived, and George could stand at his basement window and look up at it and watch it day by day as it came into its moment’s glory of young and magic green. And then towards sunset, if he was tired, he could lie down to rest awhile upon his iron bed and listen to the dying birdsong in the tree. Thus, each spring, in that one tree, he found all April and the earth. He also found devotion, love, and wisdom in a shabby little Jewish tailor and his wife, whose dirty children were always tumbling in and out of the dingy suffocation of his shop.
In the infinite variety of such common, accidental, oft-unheeded things one can see the web of life as it is spun. Whether we wake at morning in the city, or lie at night in darkness in the country towns, or walk the streets of furious noon in all the dusty, homely, and enduring lights of present time, the universe round us is the same. Evil lives for ever — so does good. Man alone has knowledge of these two, and he is such a little thing.
For what is man?
First, a child, soft-boned, unable to support itself on its rubbery legs, befouled with its excrement, that howls and laughs by turns, cries for the moon but hushes when it gets its mother’s teat; a sleeper, eater, guzzler, howler, laugher, idiot, and a chewer of its toe; a little tender thing all blubbered with its spit, a reacher into fires, a beloved fool.
After that, a boy, hoarse and loud before his companions, but afraid of the dark; will beat the weaker and avoid the stronger; worships strength and savagery, loves tales of war and murder, and violence done to others; joins gangs and hates to be alone; makes heroes out of soldiers, sailors, prize-fighters, football players, cowboys, gunmen, and detectives; would rather die than not out-try and out-dare his companions, wants to beat them and always to win, shows his muscle and demands that it be felt, boasts of his victories and will never own defeat.
Then the youth: goes after girls, is foul behind their backs among the drug-store boys, hints at a hundred seductions, but gets pimples on his face; begins to think about his clothes, becomes a fop, greases his hair, smokes cigarettes with a dissipated air, reads novels, and writes poetry on the sly. He sees the world now as a pair of legs and breasts; he knows hate, love, and jealousy; he is cowardly and foolish, he cannot endure to be alone; he lives in a crowd, thinks with the crowd, is afraid to be marked off from his fellows by an eccentricity. He joins clubs and is afraid of ridicule; he is bored and unhappy and wretched most of the time. There is a great cavity in him, he is dull.
Then the man: he is busy, he is full of plans and reasons, he has work. He gets children, buys and sells small packets of everlasting earth, intrigues against his rivals, is exultant when he cheats them. He wastes his little three score years and ten in spendthrift and ingloriousliving; from his cradle to his grave he scarcely sees the sun or moon or stars; he is unconscious of the immortal sea and earth; he talks of he future and he wastes it as it comes. If he is lucky, he saves money. At the end his fat purse buys him flunkeys to carry him where his shanks no longer can; he consumes rich food and golden wine that his wretched stomach has no hunger for; his weary and lifeless eyeslook out upon the scenery of strange lands for which in youth his heart was panting. Then the slow death, prolonged by costly doctors, and finally the graduate undertakers, the perfumed carrion, the suave ushers with palms outspread to leftwards, the fast motor hearses, and the earth again.
This is man: a writer of books, a putter-down of words, a painter of pictures, a maker of ten thousand philosophies. He grows passion-site over ideas, he hurls scorn and mockery at another’s work, he finds the one way, the true way, for himself, and calls all others false — yet in the billion books upon the shelves there is not one that can tell him how to draw a single fleeting breath in peace and comfort. He makes histories of the universe, he directs the destiny of nations, but he does not know his own history, and he cannot direct his own destiny with dignity or wisdom for ten consecutive minutes.
This is man: for the most part a foul, wretched, abominable creature, a packet of decay, a bundle of degenerating tissues, a creature that gets old and hairless and has a foul breath, a hater of his kind, a cheater, a scorner, a mocker, a reviler, a thing that kills and murders in a mob or in the dark, loud and full of brag surrounded by his fellows, but without the courage of a rat alone. He will cringe for a coin, and show his snarling fangs behind the giver’s back; he will cheat for two sous, and kill for forty dollars, and weep copiously in court to keep another scoundrel out of jail.
This is man, who will steal his friend’s woman, feel the leg of his host’s wife below the table-cloth, dump fortunes on his whores, bow down in worship before charlatans, and let his poets die. This is man, who swears he will live only for beauty, for art, for the spirit, but will live only for fashion, and will change his faith and his convictions as soon as fashion changes. This is man, the great warrior with the flaccid gut, the great romantic with the barren loins, the eternal knave devouring the eternal fool, the most glorious of all the animals, who uses his brain for the most part to make himself a stench in the nostrils of the Bull, the Fox, the Dog, the Tiger, and the Goat.
Yes, this is man, and it is impossible to say the worst of him, for the record of his obscene existence, his baseness, lust, cruelty, and treachery, is illimitable. His life is also full of toil, tumult, and suffering. His days are mainly composed of a million idiot, repetitions — in goings and comings along hot streets, in sweatings and freezings, in the senseless accumulation of fruitless tasks, in decaying and being patched, in grinding out his life so that he may buy bad food, in eating bad food so that he may grind his life out in distressful defecations. He is the dweller in that ruined tenement who, from one moment’s breathing to another, can hardly forget the bitter weight of his uneasy flesh, the thousand diseases and distresses of his body, the growing incubus of his corruption. This is man, who, if he can remember ten golden moments of joy and happiness out of all his years, ten moments unmarked by care, unseamed by aches or itches, has power to lift himself with his expiring breath and say: “I have lived upon this earth and known glory!”
This is man, and one wonders why he wants to live at all. A third of his life is lost and deadened under sleep; another third is given to a sterile labour; a sixth is spent in all his goings and his comings, in the moil and shuffle of the streets, in thrusting, shoving, pawing. How much of him is left, then, for a vision of the tragic stars? How much of him is left to look upon the everlasting earth? How much of him is left for glory and the making of great songs? A few snatched moments only from the barren glut and suck of living.
Here, then, is man, this moth of time, this dupe of brevity and numbered hours, this travesty of waste and sterile breath. Yet if the gods could come here to a desolate, deserted earth where only the ruin of man’s cities remained, where only a few marks and carvings of his hand were legible upon his broken tablets, where only a wheel lay rusting in the desert sand, a cry would burst out of their hearts and they would say: “He lived, and he was here!”
Behold his works:
He needed speech to ask for bread — and he had Christ! He needed songs to sing in battle — and he had Homer! He needed words to curse his enemies — and he had Dante, he had Voltaire, he had Swift! He needed cloth to cover up his hairless, puny flesh against the seasons — and he wove the robes of Solomon, he made the garments of great kings, he made the samite for the young knights! He needed walls and a roof to shelter him — and he made Blois! He needed a temple to propitiate his God — and he made Chartres and Fountains Abbey! He was born to creep upon the earth — and he made great wheels, he sent great engines thundering down the rails, he launched great wings into the air, he put great ships upon the angry sea!
Plagues wasted him, and cruel wars destroyed his strongest sons, but fire, flood, and famine could not quench him. No, nor the inexorable grave — his sons leaped shouting from his dying loins. The shaggy bison with his thews of thunder died upon the plains; the fabled mammoths of the unrecorded ages are vast scaffoldings of dry, insensate loam; the panthers have learned caution and move carefully among tall grasses to the water-hole; and man lives on amid the senseless nihilism of the universe.
For there is one belief, one faith, that is man’s glory, his triumph, his immortality — and that is his belief in life. Man loves life, and, loving life, hates death, and because of this he is great, he is glorious, he is beautiful, and his beauty is everlasting. He lives below the senseless stars and writes his meanings in them. He lives in fear, in toil, in agony, and in unending tumult, but if the blood foamed bubbling from his wounded lungs at every breath he drew, he would still love life more dearly than an end of breathing. Dying, his eyes burn beautifully, and the old hunger shines more fiercely in them — he has endured all the hard and purposeless suffering, and still he wants to live.
Thus it is impossible to scorn this creature. For out of his strong belief in life, this puny man made love. At his best, he is love. Without him there can be no love, no hunger, no desire.
So this is man — the worst and best of him — this frail and petty thing who lives his day and dies like-all the other animals, and is forgotten. And yet, he is immortal, too, for both the good and evil that he does live after him. Why, then, should any living man ally himself with death, and, in his greed and blindness, batten on his brother’s blood?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02