The Bowery at Night

COMING up from one of the Brooklyn ferries, after dark, on a sultry summer evening, I take my way through the close-built district of New York City still known as “The Swamp.” The narrow streets of the place are deserted by this time, but they have been lively enough during the day with the busy leather-dealers and their teams ; for this is the great hide and leather mart of the city, as anyone might guess even now in the gloom by the pungent odors that arise on every side. The heavy iron doors and window-shutters of the buildings have been locked and barred for the night ; and the thick atmosphere of the place appears to affect the gaslights, which burn sickly and dim in the street lanterns. Nobody lives here at night. The footfalls of the solitary policeman give out a hollow sound as he paces the narrow trottoir of Ferry Street, in the heart of “The Swamp.” Over two hundred years ago, when Governor Peter Stuyvesant pastured his flocks and herds hereabouts, the wayfarer would have been more likely to mark a solitary heron than a solitary policeman ; for it was really a swamp then, and much earthwork must have been expended in making the solid ground whereon the buildings now stand. Neither is it probable that, even on the most sultry of summer nights, the nose of old Mynheer Stuyvesant would have been saluted with odor’s of morocco leather, such as fill the air of “The Swamp” to-night. The wild swamp-flowers, though, gave out some faint perfumes to the night air in those olden times ; but the place could hardly have been so still of a summer night as it is now, for the booming of the bullfrog and the piping of his lesser kin must have made night resonant here, and it is reasonable to surmise that owls hooted in the cedar-trees that hung over the tawny sedges of the swamp. “Jack-o’-Lantern” was the only inhabitant who burned gas hereabouts in those times, and he manufactured his own. The nocturnal raccoon edged his way through the alders here, in the old summer nights, and the muskrat built his house among the reeds. Not a raccoon nor a muskrat is the wayfarer likely to meet with here to-night; but the gray rat of civilization is to be dimly discerned, as he lopes along the gutters in his nightly prowl.

There is something very bewildering to the untutored mind in the announcements on the dim, stony door-posts of the stores. Here it is set forth that “ Kids and Gorings ” are the staple of the concern. Puzzling though the inscription is to me, yet I recognize in it something that is pastoral and significant ; for there were kids that skipped, probably, and bulls that gored, when the grass was green here. “ Oak and Hemlock Leather,” on the next doorpost, reads well, for it is redolent of glades that were old before the masonry that now prevails here had been dreamed of. Here we have an announcement of " Russet Roans ” ; and the next merchant, who is apparently a cannibal or a ghoul, deliberately notifies the public that he deals in “ Hatters' Skins.” Many of the door-posts announce “ Findings ” and “ Skivers ” ; and upon one of them I note the somewhat remarkable intimation of “ Pullea Wool.” Gold Street, also, is redolent of all these things, as I turn into it, nor is there any remission of the pungent trade-stenches of the district until I have gained a good distance up Spruce Street, toward the City Hall Park. Here the Bowery proper, viewed as a great artery of New York trade and travel, may be said to begin. The first reach of it is called Chatham Street ; and, having plunged into this, I have nothing before me now but Bowery for a distance of nearly two miles.

Leaving behind me, then, the twinkling lights of the newspaper buildings and those of the City Hall Park, northward along Chatham Street I bend my loitering steps. Israel predominates here, — Israel, with its traditional stock in trade of cheap clothing, and bawbles that are made to wear, but not to wear long. The shops here are mostly small, and quite open to the street in front, which gives the place a bazaar-like appearance in summer. Economy in space is practised to the utmost. It is curious to observe how closely crowded the goods (bads might be a more appropriate term for most of them) are outside the shops, as well as inside. The fronts of the houses are festooned with raiment of all kinds, until they look like tents made of variegated dry-goods. Here is a stall so confined that the occupant, rocking in his chair near the farther end of it, stretches his slippered feet well out upon the threshold. It is near closing time now, and many of the dealers, with their wives and children, are sitting out in front of their shops, and, if not under their own vines and fig-trees, at least under their own gaudy flannels and “ loud - patterned ” cotton goods, which are waving overhead in the sluggish evening breeze. Nothing can be more suggestive of lazily industrious Jewry than this short, thick-set clothier, with the curved nose, and spiral, oily hair, who sits out on the sidewalk and blows clouds from his meerschaum pipe. The women who lounge here are generally stoutish and slatternly, with few clothes on, but plenty of frowzy hair. Here and there one may see a pretty face among the younger girls ; and it is sad to reflect that these little Hebrew maids will become stout and slatternly by and by, and have hooked noses like their mothers, and double chins. The labels on the ready-made clothing are curious in their way. Here a pair of trousers in glaring brown and yellow stripes is ticketed with the alluring word, “Lovely.” Other garments are offered to the public, with such guaranties as “ Original,” “ Genteel,” “ Excelsior,” and “ Our Own.” There is not an article among them but has its ticket of recommendation, and another card affixed to each sets forth the lowest price for which it is to be had. The number and variety of hats on show along this queer arcade are very characteristic of the people, with whom hats have long been a traditional article of commerce. Dimly-lighted cellars, down precipitous flights of narrow, dirty steps, up which come fumes of coffee and cooked viands, are to be seen at short intervals, and these restaurants are supported mainly by the denizens of the street. Shops in the windows of which blazes much cheap jewelry abound, and there are also many tobacconists on a small scale.

The lights of Chatham Square twinkle out now ; and here I pause before a feature very peculiar to the Bowery, — one of those large, open shops in which vociferous salesmen address from galleries a motley crowd of men and women. One fellow in dirty shirtsleeves and a Turkish cap flourishes aloft something which looks like a fan, but proves, on closer inspection, to be a group composed of several pocketcombs, a razor, and other small articles, constituting in all a “lot.” This he offers, with stentorian utterances, for a price “ a hundred per cent less, you bet, than you kin buy ’em for on Broadway.” Other salesmen lean furiously over the gallery railing, flourishing shirts, stockings, and garments of every kind, mentionable and unmentionable, in the faces of the gaping loafers below. Sometimes a particular “ lot ” will attract the attention of a spectator, and he will chaffer about it for a while ; but the sales do not often appear to be very brisk. The people one sees in these places are very characteristic of the Bowery. Many of them are what the police call “hard cases,” — men, with coarse, bulldog features, their mustaches trimmed very close, and dyed with something that gives them a foxy-black hue. Women, many of them with children in their arms, have come to look out for bargains. Near the entrance, which is quite open to the street, there stands a man with a light cane in his hand, which he lays every now and then over the shoulders of some objectionable youth marked by him in the crowd. The objectionable youth is a pickpocket, or a “ sneak-thief,” or both, and the man with the cane is the private detective attached to the place. He is well acquainted with the regular thieves of these localities, and his business is to “spot” them, and keep them from edging in among the loose articles lying about the store. He says that there are a great many notorious pickpockets in the crowd, and he looks like one who knows.

Here and there along the Bowery small, shrivelled Chinamen stand by rickety tables, on which a few boxes of cheap cigars are exposed for sale. These foreigners look uneasy in their Bowery clothes, which are of the cheapest quality sold at the places just mentioned. Some of them wear the traditional queue, but they wind it very closely round their heads, probably to avoid the derision of the street boys, to whom a Chinaman’s “tail” offers a temptation not to be resisted. Others have allowed their hair to grow in the ordinary manner. They are not communicative when addressed, which may be due, perhaps, to the fact, that but few of them possess more of the English language than is necessary for the purposes of trade. Fireworks and tobacco are the principal articles in which these New York Chinamen deal.

Everybody who passes through the Bowery, and more especially at night, must have observed the remarkable prevalence of small children there. Swarms of well-clad little boys and girls, belonging to the shop-keepers, sport before the doors until a late hour at night. Here is a group of extremely diminutive ones, dancing an elf-like measure to the music of an itinerant organist. Darting about, here, there, and everywhere, are packs of ragged little urchins. They paddle along in the dirty gutter, the black ooze from which they spatter over the passers on the sidewalk, and run with confiding recklessness against the legs of hurrying pedestrians. Ragged and poor as they certainly are, they do not often ask for alms, but continually give themselves up, with wild abandon, to chasing each other in and out between the obstacles on the sidewalk. Boys of a better class carry on business here. Watch this one selling fans : he is so well dressed, and so genteel in appearance, that it is easy to see his livelihood does not altogether hang upon a commercial venture so small as the one in which he is at present engaged. That boy has evidently a mercantile turn, and may be a leading city man yet. Farther on, four smart-looking youngsters are indulging in some very frothy beverage at a street soda-water bar. High words are bandied about concerning the quality of the “ stamps ” offered by them in change, the genuine character of which has been challenged by a boy of their own size, who seems to be in charge of the concern. Numbers of these cheap soda-water stalls are to be seen in the Bowery ; and they appear to drive a good business generally, notwithstanding the lager-beer saloons that so generally abound. Many larger establishments for the sale of temperance drinks are open here during the summer months. I notice a good number of people going to and from a large one, the entrance of which is so wide and high that it realizes the idea of “ open house,” and within which there are a great number of taps from which soda-water, ready mingled with all the various kinds of syrups, is drawn.

Let us cross over the Bowery, and take a look at Division Street, which diverges from it at the neck of Chatham Square, and is one of the curiosities of the district. It is a narrow street, very brilliantly lighted up on one side by the show-windows of the milliners’ shops ; and a marvellously long row of milliners it is, never ending until it runs against a druggist just where Bayard Street makes an angle with Division. Every window and every show-case by the thresholds is filled with a curious variety of infinitesimally small bonnets and hats, some in a skeleton state, others bedizened in all the fancy modes of the season. Division Street may be termed the milliners’ quarter of New York City. Most of the goods displayed here are of a “ sensation ” character, but that is just what pays on the east side. Yet I would not be understood here as meaning to disparage the west side ; and indeed I have been told that ladies from the most fashionable quarters of the city are not above buying their millinery in Division Street. Numbers of young girls are passing to and fro here, pausing ever and anon to gaze in at the windows with longing eyes. If there be “sermons in stones,” so are there also in show-cases, and many a sad romance of won and lost grows out of the latter too. The shop-girls have nearly got through their work now, and they lean against the doorposts or stand out on the sidewalk, gossiping in groups of twos and threes. You will observe that there is not a single milliner’s shop on the other side of the street. The dealers there are mostly in the hardware and grocery lines, or they represent commerce as tobacconists, confectioners, and such like ; but they have nearly all shut up for the night, and the glory of the gas is on the milliner side of the way alone. All along the Bowery the same order of things may be observed to prevail, — the west side being chiefly devoted to the dry-goods trade, while the hardware dealers, grocers, restaurateurs, and numerous other tradespeople occupy the east side.

And now again up the Bowery, — where the lights appear to stretch away into almost endless space. The numerous lines of horse-cars pass and repass each other in long perspective, their lights twinkling like constellations on the rampage, as they run to and fro. The jingle of their harness-bells is pleasant of a sultry night, recalling the sleigh-bells of bracing winter. And the bells have something suggestive in them, too, of the old Bowery pastures, where the flocks and herds roamed at large, and the cow-bells rang bass to the shrill treble that came from the bell-wethers of the flock. But here we have something that is hardly so pastoral in its associations. Out from the portals of a large theatre issues a crowd of roughs, who elbow and jostle each other in their anxiety to reach the nearest place where bad liquor can be had. To-night the theatre has been given over to the gymnasts of the " prize-ring,” and they have had a sparring exhibition there. Three or four interesting English pugilists, lately arrived in the city, have been showing their mettle with the gloves on ; and, although a dollar a head is the usual admission fee on such occasions, the entertainment is always sure to bring together an immense crowd of the rough class. A little later, and another dense throng will emerge from the Old Bowery Theatre, just over the way. It will be a very mixed crowd of men, women, and children, — the streetboys, with their wondrous variety of sharp faces, owlish faces, wicked faces, and ragged clothes, being constant patrons of this popular east-side theatre. Not far from this are the most dangerous corners and lurking-places to be found anywhere in the Bowery. Here thieves and rowdies of the worst description hang about the doors of the low bar-rooms in the neighborhood, in gangs of five or six, all ready at a signal to concentrate their forces for a rescue, a robbery, or a row of any sort in which plunder may be secured. There are policemen in the Bowery, of course ; but in many cases the tactics of the thieves prove to be too much for these guardians of the public peace. One night, for instance, in the merry month of May of this year, a gang of about a dozen armed ruffians boarded a Third Avenue horse-car somewhere in these latitudes, knocked down the conductor with a slung-shot, robbed and otherwise maltreated several of the passengers, and got clear away before the first policeman had made his appearance. Such incidents are by no means uncommon in the Bowery and its purlieus at night. It is quite different now, remember, from the Bowery it was when old Peter Stuyvesant used to dot its cow-paths with the tip of his wooden leg.

Everywhere within the limits of the sidewalk, and sometimes out upon the pavement beyond, stand fruit-stalls loaded with oranges, apples, nuts, and all such fruits as are seasonable and plenty. There are tables on which pink, pulpy melons, flecked with the jet-black seeds, are set forth in slices, to tempt thirsty passengers ; tables upon which large rocks of candy are broken up into nuggets to suit customers and tables upon which bananas alone are exposed for sale. The lamps upon all these flame and smoke in the fitful whiffs of night air. The weighing-machine man is here, with a blazing light suspended in front of his brazen disk; and, as I pass on, I notice that the man who exhibits the moon is dismounting his big telescope, for the night is clouding fast, and his occupation is gone. Two small girls are scraping doleful strains from the sad catgut of violins nearly as big as themselves. They have long been frequenters of the Bowery at night, and were much smaller than their fiddles when I first saw them here. Off the sidewalk, upon the pavement of the street, there is a crowd of men and boys. closely grouped around something in the way of a show. As I approach, old voices of the once familiar woodlands and farm-yards greet my ear. I listen to them, for a brief moment, rapt. Alas ! they are spurious. They emanate from a dirty man, who stands in the centre of the group, with a small wooden box slung before him. By his side stands his torchbearer, who illuminates him with a lamp suspended from a long pole. The performer takes something from his mouth, and, having made a laudatory address regarding its merits, replaces it between his teeth, and resumes his imitations of many birds and quadrupeds. His mocking-bird is very fair ; his thrush, passable ; but his canary less successful, being rather too reedy and harsh. Farm-yard sounds are thrown off with considerable imitative power. His pig is so good, indeed, that it invites a purchaser, who puts one of the calls into his: mouth, and frightfully distorts his features in His wretched efforts to produce the desired grunts and squeaks. The crowing of cocks, the neighing of horses, the lowing of cows, and the bleating of sheep follow in succession, — sounds so appropriate to the memories of the Bowery that was, that one is tempted to applaud the rascal in spite of the swindle he is practising on the crowd. Of course, with the exception of the bird-songs, none of these sounds are produced by the aid of the calls, but are simply the fruit of long and assiduous practice on the part of the gifted performer.

On, on, still up the Bowery, of which the end is not yet. Great numbers of people are passing to and fro, an excess of the feminine element being generally observable. The sidewalks are cumbered with rough wooden cases. As in Chatham Street, the shop-keepers — or “ merchants,” if they insist on being so designated — are sitting, mostly, outside their doors. Garlands of hosiery and forests of hoop-skirts wave beneath the awnings,—-for most of the Bowery shops have awnings,— making the sidewalk in front of them a sort of arcade for the display of their goods. But the time has come now for taking in all these waving things for the night, and the young men and girls of the shops are unhooking them with long poles, or handing them down from step-ladders planted in the middle of the sidewalk. Ranged outside the larger establishments are rows of headless dummies, intended to represent the female form divine, and to show off on their inanimate busts and shoulders the sweetest assortments ever seen of new things in summer fashions. These headless dummies of the Bowery have a very ghastly look at night. They suggest a procession of the ghosts of Bluebeard’s wives, who, true to their instincts while in life, nightly revisit the “ ladies’ furnishing establishments ” here, to rummage among scarfs and ribbons, and don for the brief hour before cock-crow the valuable stuffs and stuffings that are yet so dear to them.

Yonder is a group curious for color, and one well worth the consideration of a painter who has a fancy for strikingeffects. A negro girl with hot corn for sale stands just outside the reflection from a druggist’s window, the bars of red and green light from the colored jars in which fall weirdly on the faces of two men who are buying from her. The trade in boots and shoes is briskly carried on, even at this late hour of the night. In the Bowery this trade is very extensive. Long strings of boots and shoes hang from the door-posts. Trays of the same articles are displayed outside, and it seems an easy matter for any nocturnal prowler to help himself, en passant, from the boxes full of cordwainers’ work that stand on the edge of the footway next the street. On the eastern side of the way, there are fewer lights to be seen now than there were an hour ago. The tradespeople over there, generally, have put up their shutters, and the time for closing the drinking-saloons is at hand ; but lights are yet lingering in the pawnbroker’s establishments, for the Mont de Piété is an institution of an extremely wakeful, not to say wide-awake, kind.

Now the Bowery widens gradually to the northward, and may be likened to a river that turns to an estuary ere it joins the waters of the main. The vast and hideous brown-stone delta of the Cooper Institute divides it into two channels, — Third Avenue to the right, Fourth Avenue to the left. Properly the Bowery may be said to end here ; but only a few blocks farther on, at the corner of Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street, is marked the spot where stood the gateway leading to the original Bouwery, the old mansion in which Peter Stuyvesant dwelt when New Amsterdam was, but as yet no New York. And here, till within a few months, stood the traditional Stuyvesant pear - tree, said to have been brought from Holland, and planted by the hands of the old Dutch Governor himself. Spring-time after spring-time, until within a year or two past, the Stuyvesant pear-tree used to blossom, and its blossoms run to fruit. It lived, in a very gnarled and rheumatic condition, until the 26th of February last, when it sank quietly down to rest, and nothing but the rusty old iron railing is left to show where it stood.