The Small Arabs of New York

TRAVERSE New York City in all its great business thoroughfares, its fashionable promenades, its parks, its by-lanes, its back-alleys, its outlets, and along by its great water-fronts, and everywhere you will find certain figures in the same foreground with yourself,— the figures of small, ragged, shoeless boys and girls. By twos and threes they go, mostly, in the more opulent quarters of the city. In the foul purlieus they swarm. Mackerclville — a pet name by which a certain quarter of the eastern district of the city is fondly known to its residents and to the police — teems with them. On the reeking wharves they settle thickly, as the local caterpillars do on the city trees when leaves are green. Sparse are the locusts of Algeria compared with these small Arabs of the streets, who, as they have no tents to fold, do not “silently steal away,” but, on the contrary, illustrate their comings and goings with every variety of noise producible by the combined efforts of small human lips and small human lungs.

These juvenile wanderers of the boisterous. headlong city may be generalized into two classes, — those who have parents living and those who have none. The fact of father and mother is one always communicated by the small street Arab to his questioner with some degree of pride. To the inquiry as to whether he resorts to the Boys’ Lodging-House for his nightly repose, the shoeblack of ten or twelve will often reply: “No, sir! — ‘not for Joseph!’ — I have a father and mother, and I takes my winks at home.’' Nor do the quality and occupation of father and mother seem to be taken so much into account by him as the fact. Frequently I am told by street boys that their fathers and mothers are rag-pickers, their dwelling a deep cellar-—and probably a very damp one — in some crowded rookery of the cruel city. In many cases they are grimly reserved with regard to the callings and abodes of their parents, either from uncertainty on the subject or concealment sternly enjoined. It may be doubted, indeed, whether the possession of a father and mother is always an advantage to the urchin of thv gutters. Inherited qualities ripen into poisonous fruit under the evil eye of the, transmitter, and small is the hope of escape for the children of living ruifians and thieves.

Thousands of the street children of New York, however, have neither parents nor any regular places of abode to which they can resort at night. In summer they are careless and happy, for clothing is of no consideration then ; and in some recess behind the open door of a tenement-house, on the grass less spaces of some city park, or amid the rubbish of a demolished building, they can roll themselves away, and sleep the sleepof the wild ranger of the gutters, to whom repletion will bring no nightmares, though his dreams may be of pumpkin-pies and other ambrosial viands of the remote possible. But in the inclement nights of winter the sufferings of the homeless little street Arabs are unspeakably severe. Then they huddle themselves together in doorways, at the risk of being spurned forth by some drunken lodger into the pelting sleet, or trodden upon by the late and reckless comers to and fro. The great iron boilers that stand out in front of the machine-shops, in some quarters of the city, often afford lodgings for the night to these shivering little sprouts of humanity. Others may be seen emerging at early morning from the weather-beaten stalls that cling to the foot of some drowsy old market-building. To-day it is Indian summer. The sun shines genially through the warm November haze, and here, in a desolate park of the eastern district of the city many groups of small street children are seen at play. They are as cheerful as crickets, and as shrill. Several of the nights just passed away have been bitterly cold, and we have had ice on the pools in the bleak mornings. Many of the children, as I am informed by a policeman, have passed these bitter nights in such places as I have just mentioned ; but they have forgotten all their cares now in the glad sunshine, and it is quite likely that not one of them gives a thought as to how or where he is to lay down his unkempt head to-night. Here is one who is a wonder to contemplate, and he may be taken as a fair specimen of his kind. He professes ignorance with regard to his age, but is adroit at catching copper coins that are jerked to him from a distance of two or three yards. Probably he is seven years old, but he is stunted and dwarfish for his age. As for clothes, — well, the newly emerged chicken, with some pieces of the egg-shell slicking to it, is about as dressy as that small Arab. A boiler was ins bed last night. It has been his bed every night since the hard weather set in, and cold comfort must an iron boiler be when off the boil. He has a brother some years older than himself, and this brother does something for his living, and has a coat, — a real coat with sleeves and a tail, and possibly a button or two with which to loop it close, — and he shares it with the smaller shred of adversity, as they huddle themselves together with other boys in the metal cylinder.

Many an incident that would have furnished a good subject for the pencil of Leech, who had a wonderful eye for street-boy life, may be noted by one who explores observantly the byways of New York. Lately, when passing through a quiet street in one of the suburbs, I saw a small boy sprawling, face downward, on a grating that closed over a deep area or cellar. Suddenly he raised himself half up, his face beaming with intense excitement, and screamed at the top of his voice : “ Run, Johnny ! — run, Maggie ! — run, Tommy !

— run ! run ! — I see a penny down at the bottom of this here hole ! ” And a number of small ragamuffins came quickly to his call, and, throwing themselves upon the grating, gave shrill utterance to their sense of delight at the splendid but unattainable treasure of which they had a glimpse in the depths below. Another time, crossing a jdece of waste ground, I was much amused at the address with which a half-naked boy baffled a policeman who wanted to capture him, by dodging round and into a pool of stagnant water, which he managed to keep between himself and the officer, until the latter gave up the pursuit, and moved disconcertedly away. The Bowery theatres have great attractions for the boot-blacks and other industrial Arabs of the streets, who can afford to pay a few cents for admission to them now and then. Here many of them acquire the tragic rant and scowl, which they exaggerate to a ludicrous extent ; and it is quite common to see a couple of boot-blacks enacting a deadly combat on the sidewalk, with pieces of lath for swords, and their professional brush-boxes for shields. Some of these young aspirants to histrionic art are capital mimics, hitting off the peculiarities of their favorite actors with much success.

A few years ago, while the volunteer fire-companies were yet in existence, the great ambition of the New York street boy was to accompany the “ machine ” as it rattled over the pavement when an alarm of fire was given. He used to take part in the business of the occasion, tugging at the ropes of the vehicles with great energy ; and the more wet and smirched he got in the performance of his tremendous teats of agility and valor, the better he was pleased. To be a fireman, in flaming red shirt and shiny black pantaloons, was to him the acme of human ! bliss. Under the new system of fire-service, he is debarred from any direct participation in the working of the engines ; but he none the less makes himself officious in the tumult, dodging in and out of the crowd with the celerity of a prairie-dog, and quite regardless of the kicks and cuffs bestowed on him by the excited citizens against whom he runs in his reckless course.

Processions of all kinds are a source of great gratification to the street boy ; and, where no procession is intended, he will improvise one by notifying a number of his companions that some celebrated or notorious character is in the street, and so making up a crowd to follow that person, at a distance respectful or otherwise, as the case may warrant. Yesterday a great rabble of street boys and girls was to be seen following in the wake of a gigantic prizefighter, whom the myrmidons of the law were escorting to his proper place, — in the city prison. To-day there is a long procession of carriages in the thoroughfares, got up by a quack doctor to advertise and advance his particular swindle. Here the small Arabs are out in great force, and they not only crowd alongside of the charlatan’s cortége, but several of the biggest among them have obtained admission to the carriages in the capacity of volunteer standard-bearers to the Cagliostro of the occasion. But it is when a circus procession winds through the city that the street boys and girls are to be seen in full effervescence. Then the sidewalks, doorsteps, railings, and all accessible points from which a view of the show is to be had, are alive with them. Each small ragamuffin thinks, as he gazes at the gorgeous spectacle, how he would like to be a circus-rider, in silk and spangles all brilliantly arrayed, and careering proudly along upon a piebald steed. But the liontamer is the chief attraction in the pageant, as he stands on the top of the triumphal car in statuesque posé, one hand resting on the massive head of the “real live lion,” the other pressing with experienced grace the salient angle of his flexible hip-joint. Without any reference to posters or other advertisements, one can generally tell when there is a circus-show in the city, by the operations of the street boys, whose aptitude for tumbling and other acrobatic feats then becomes developed to a remarkable extent. At such times the boot-black will approach you by a series of hand-springs, and the diminutive urchin who whines at you for a penny will probably take his departure, when you have given him one, in the similitude of a flying wheel decked out with many-colored rags.

And with all these roamers of the city, the street games have their regular seasons, and the order in which they succeed each other is observed with a strictness bordering on severity. When the March winds whistle round corners and drive whirls of sharp dust into the faces of blinking passengers, thea every ragged urchin of the streets who can command a scrap of paper and a couple of yards of string, rushes madly along the highways and byways, “flying his kite.” The game is in now, and he would lose caste with his associates should he fail to make a show of some kind at it, however feeble. When marbles are in season,—and that seems to be all the year round, except in very wet or very cold weather, — the sidewalks in many parts of the city are obstructed by groups of ragged boys, all deeply intent upon the artistic performances of some barefooted champion of the chalked ring. Peg-top does not appear to be very popular among them, partly on account of the large amount of capital required for the first investment, and partly because the game is one involving injury to bare feet. Boys and girls who have a turn for mechanics will sometimes contrive what they call pin-wheels, — bits of stick crossed, tipped with little squares of paper, and then attached to another stick with a large pin, so that they will whirl round when carried swiftly against a breeze. These the skilled young artificers dispose of to less gifted boys and girls for so many pins apiece. Then, when they have accumulated a large stock of pins, they sell them to the petty shopkeepers of the byways, whose “show-windows” display such necessaries and luxuries of life as tallow-candles, spools of thread, sticks of clouded candy, and bars of yellow soap. From such small beginnings great things have frequently resulted. It is within the knowledge of the present writer, that more than one successful proprietor of a sidewalk table for the sale of tumble-and-squeak mannikins, and other ingenious devices for diverting the mind of the infant of the period, can trace his fortune to the simple but fascinating pin-wheel, and the financial operations connected with its manufacture and sale. Far before all these diversions, though, are the reckless gambols resulting from base-ball, now recognized as the great national game. Since this game has laid hold of the popular mind, — and surely Young America may be said to have it " on the brain ” now, — the street boy seems to have devoted all his energies to throwing everything he can handle at everybody he can reach. If a boy has been sent forth by his parents to buy a few apples at the corner grocery, he conveys the fruit to its destination in a series of pitches and catches diagonally executed with the aid of other boys of his kind. In his eyes, everything portable is a base-ball; and it but too often goes to the eyes of the passers to and fro, who suffer from the dangerous practice of throwing tilings at random in the streets. Everywhere on the sidewalks, everywhere in the alleys and courts, the boy may be seen engaged in the winsome game called “tip-cat,'’ which is the nearest approach that he, with his limited resources, can make to the great national game. Entirely reckless with regard to the eyes and other features of an aggrieved public, he tips featly from the ground the odious, conical chunk of wood from which the pastime derives its name, and then strikes it wildly away from him in any direction whatever. Boys carrying parcels, boys carrying bottles, boys to whom small puppy-dogs have been intrusted for asphyxiation in some adjacent cesspool,—-all, all, without exception, keep tossing up and catching their burdens, as they go, until the thing has become a flagrant nuisance to the public, and a plague.

Of the occupations to which the street boys of New York most naturally incline, those of the boot-black and the newsboy seem to be chiefly in favor. The boot-blacks are a very peculiar class, constituting a distinct tribe of street Arabs in themselves. Merely nominal, and often suggestive less of civilization than of secluded jungles and M. du Chaillu’s Fan-cannibal, whose full dress consisted of a stovepipe hat, is the clothing that hangs about many of these boys. It has generally lost all semblance of whatever it might originally have been. In many cases the article intended to represent trousers does duty for shirt and jacket and all, and is hitched up and fastened about the neck with a piece of string. This process cheats the legs out of what might fairly be considered their due, and they have consequently become scorched and baked by the sun to the color of bricks. As for the hats and caps affected by this particular tribe of small Arabs, they are utterly past comprehension, nor would their analysis be unattended by disagreeable consequences. The mystsry that envelopes them were better unsolved. Yesterday I witnessed a squabble between several of these ubiquitous wanderers in the middle of a very dirty street. The smallest of the group — and an amazingly small creature he was to be out on a world so wide — got pitched, face downwards, into a filthy puddle, and was a piteous object as he gathered himself up and limped crying away. One of his companions followed him, and, taking off his own head-gear, wiped away with it the mud from the face of the weeping urchin, having done which, he unostentatiously replaced the article upon the matted head which it might have protected, but certainly did not adorn. Most of the boot-blacks have shoes ; while stockings, though exceptional among them, are not rigorously excluded from, their working wardrobe. These are luxuries, however, which the biggei boys only enjoy, most of the smaller ones going barefooted all the summer, and being scantily provided with clothing. Sometimes, on Sundays, the bigger ones may be seen polishing each other’s shoes, and this service is performed absolutely on the reciprocal principle, and free of charge. Observe yonder two boys, one of them with his wholecloth Sunday trousers on, the other veneered as to his legs with partial pantaloons, the original material of which is past detection amid the patches innumerable with which it has been supplemented. The first boy, as he kneels down to clean a customer’s boots, places a folded newspaper between his knees and the ground. The other would probably take no such precaution, even had he trousers worth the saving. One cannot help thinking that there may be a possible millionnaire in number one, while number two may never have a pair of knees, perhaps, between which and the dirt the interposition of an old newspaper would be worth while.

More typical of the small Arabs of New York than the boot-blacks are, however, are the boys and girls who run through the city and suburbs with daily papers for sale. The scene at some of the publication offices, during the distribution of papers, is a very curious and lively one. Most of the children who crowd the sidewalk, or jostle each other in the doorway, eager for their turns to come, are very small, and in summer time but few of them have shoes and stockings. Hats are absolutely exceptional, and the boys have their hair cropped very close. Remarkably loud-voiced for their size are these peripatetic promulgators of the news, and “ rashly importunate ” also ; for should you stop a moment near a newspaper office when they are emerging from it, a dozen of them will assail you at once, vociferating the name of the paper in shrill chorus, and demanding that you buy a copy of it from each. Then they scurry off in various directions through the streets, and soon their shrill cries are to be heard in every quarter of the city. The boys will jump into the street cars, run along from rear to front, dropping a newspaper on the lap of each passenger, and then returning dash into the street again, having generally managed to dispose of several copies by this manoeuvre. Numbers of them cross over to the suburban cities by the ferryboats ; and the stillness of Brooklyn Heights and the Teutonic serenity of Hoboken are alike startled by the piercing cries of small news-venders from the lairs and dust-holes of New York.

Among the girls, however small they may be, that precocious sharpness which is so often imparted to childhood by pinching poverty is very observable. Here is a fair-haired child of ten or eleven, with a very large plaid shawl, which, as a shower begins to fall, she wraps cleverly and artistically round her head and face. Her talk and gestures are those of a woman, as she objurgates in shrill tones another child much smaller than herself. The latter is an absurdly small creature to be engaged in the newspaper trade. She goes barefooted, like many of the others, but she has a quantity of thick, glossy brown hair, some tresses of which she has taken up with shreds of purple ribbon, picked out, probably, from an ash-barrel or dust-box. In vituperation she is quite a match for the bigger girl, to whose disparagements she retorts with a volubility and power of invective that would reflect credit on a market - woman of mathred experience. In the sale of newspapers the girls are not so successful as the boys. Instances are on record of newsboys having gained as much as ten or twelve dollars in as many hours by the sale of papers and extras when some important news had come in. They commonly make from fifty cents to two dollars a day, eachThe girls waste a good deal of their time in gossiping and scolding among themselves ; and this, added to their not having the activity and endurance or the boys, prevents them from ever doing much in the news business. They are not often seen engaged in it, except when they are very small. When the wet, muddy days of winter set in, numbers of the girls make a few precarious pennies by sweeping crossings. From time to time this occupation, which is only a form of mendicancy, and exposes the children to serious accidents from passing vehicles besides, is interfered with by police regulations, but it seems always to start into activity again. Where the demolition of buildings is in progress, — and a more common than pleasing feature of New York City that same process is, — crowds of boys and girls are to be seen collecting fuel from the rubbish. They carry old baskets with them, into which they pack all the bits of broken lath and wood that they can lay hands on. He would be a hard-hearted builder — or unbuilder, rather — who would debar them from this privilege, and they are never molested. Sometimes they may be seen making their way along the streets, so laden with their burdens on their backs that they look like baskets that have been stealing wood, and are running away with it on little brown, bare legs. Again a team of them may be seen drawing a small wooden car set upon low wheels, and piled high with chips, shavings, and all such dry remnants as will burn easily and help to make the pot boil. Sifting cinders gives occupation to numbers of the girls, groups of whom may always be seen thus occupied in the vacant lots and bits of waste ground of the city. Fuel is the principal object here ; though the small Cinderellas are likewise instigated to their toil by possible chances of silver spoons or other stray articles of value. At night many small girls are to be seen about the entrances of the hotels and theatres with bouquets for sale ; and this, too, is but a pretext for begging, the bunches of flowers offered by them being generally withered and valueless. Others hawk matches and such like small wares ; and we lately noticed a girl of about eleven who had been investing her capital in penny ballads, and was engaged at early morning in pinning a tremendous row of them to the railing in front of a church.

The smallest and raggedest specimens of New York’s nomadic children are often to be met with in the most fashionable parts of the city. On a warm summer’s day they may be seen even within the perfumed precincts of Fifth Avenue, chasing, perchance, the misguided butterflies that have fluttered over from their native meadows or suburban gardens and plunged recklessly into the dissipations and dangers of city life. Or a group of them will follow in the wake of an ice-wagon, watching it until a delivery of ice has been made at some house, when they will have a scramble for the few fragments dropped from the cart, which they suck with as much apparent relish as though all ice were ice-cream. In the autumn, when the small Arabs have obtained a few pence one way or another, a very favorite luxury with them is a slice of watermelon, which they can buy for a cent or two at some corner stall. The newsboys, especially, are much addicted to this juicy fruit,— a fact of which vendors frequently avail themselves, by setting out their tables just in front of some newspaper office to which the boys resort.

Some of the larger street boys and girls, when they have made a few dollars, set up stands in the Bowery and elsewhere, for the preparation and sale of roasted chestnuts, or of certain doughy cakes. Here, for instance, placed on the outer edge of the sidewalk, is a little apparatus of sheet-iron, mounted upon a wooden tripod, and heated with charcoal. The proprietor of the concern is a wholesome-looking youth of about fifteen, with a face much resembling, both in color and expression, a chromo - lithographed strawberry. He is baking — or rather frying — a very greasy cake of some kind, and he is watched with interest the while by several boys of different sizes, who stand in front of him. A couple of them are boot-blacks, and they are all patched and ragged to a marvellous extent. The smallest and raggedest of them is a cripple, hunchbacked, and with one of his legs twisted up, and he moves with great difficulty, leaning upon a little crutch, which he does not seem likely to outgrow. Hunger lurks in that little, pale, pinched face, and the bleared eyes are fixed wistfully upon the cake that is tossed so adroitly in the pan by the youth with the strawberry face. A five-cent piece dropped into the dirty little hand of the cripple causes him to look up in blank astonishment at the donor. One of the boot-blacks reminds him that he might say “Thank yer,” and another boy recommends him to “spend a penny on cake and put the balance in the savings bank.”And this bit of advice was given, not in banter, but seriously, for nearly all of the industrious boys, and those who do not gamble, deposit their savings in banks until they have accumulated money enough to set them up in business. The besetting vice with all the boys who make any money, though, is gaming. Everywhere in New York City small establishments may be observed, on the window - blinds of which the word “ Exchange ” is painted in glaring letters. These are known as “ policyshops,” — places in which gambling is carried on through the medium of lottery-tickets, — and it is in such dens as these that boys who cannot resist the inclination to gamble dissipate most of their earnings. Many of them are adepts, too, at various games played with cards and dice ; while others, who have not yet acquired so much proficiency in the art of play, content themselves with tossing coppers in the streets.

Besides the occupations already mentioned, the sale of various articles of small value gives employment to many of these boys. They may be seen everywhere hawking silk neckties of gaudy colors. Some of them perambulate the Bowery and other parts of the city with cheap cigars for sale. In electioneering times a favorite speculation with them is the trade in badges, by which they sometimes realize considerable amounts of money. When Fashion ruled that her fair votaries should adopt the ephemeral folly called the “ Grecian Bend,” numbers of boys ran through the streets with cheap illustrations of it in photograph and silhouette. Any active employment, in the pursuit of which they must run, and fight, and swarm everywhere, and jostle everybody, seems to take their fancy most, and so it is that the muscular element of the city is always kept fully supplied with recruits.

New York is by no means unprovided with asylums and reformatory institutions for the small Arabs by whom it is so ubiquitously pervaded, but they are as yet far from sufficient to meet fully the objects for which they have been so laudably planned. A “ Children’s Aid Society ” has been in existence for a number of years, and from this excellent institution numbers of boys and girls are sent annually to the West, where so many fields of healthful labor are open for them. Out of this grew the “Newsboys’ Lodging-House,” in the large dormitories of which some two hundred boys find comfortable lodgings every night. Each boy, when he comes in at night, hands fifteen cents to the superintendent, and for this he is entitled to supper and sleeping accommodation, and to his breakfast next morning. In addition to this, he is provided with a bath, and with all the necessary appliances for maintaining cleanliness of person. The institution also comprises a “ Newsboys’ Bank,” which consists of a table with a drawer divided into compartments, each of which has in its lid a slit, through which depositors drop their pennies into the compartments numbered for them respectively. At the expiration of two months the bank is opened ; and many of the depositors are both surprised and encouraged when they see how their savings have accumulated. Most of them make necessary purchases with some of this money, and deposit the rest of it in city savings banks.

Other asylums besides those just mentioned are also provided by New York charity for the juvenile waifs and strays of the city. At the “ Five Points House of Industry,” for example, nearly two thirds of all received into the institution are children ; and on the islands in New York Harbor many small ramblers of the streets find a home in the various institutions established there. Yet there does not appear to be any diminution in the hosts of ragged children that abound in all quarters of the city.

Stroll any fine afternoon along Fifth Avenue, or on the footpaths near the drives in Central Park, and, amid the splendid equipages that flash by persons conversant with New York society could point out to you several owned by wealthy merchants, who once were small Arabs of the streets and now are millionnaires. Yon successful speculator once hawked strings of cheap neckties about the lower part of the city. There goes one behind a dashing team, who has his grand mansion in town, and his country-house besides, with a park to it, and a porter’s lodge, and his servants in livery all with tremendous buttons constellated, and pictures in his gallery, and everything else attainable that can make life pleasant. He is in the early prime of life yet ; and once he was a small Arab of New York, to the discords innumerable of which city he contributed his puny yell, as he ran barefooted through the streets with newspapers for sale.