The Aristocracy of the Tough

To say that the Bowery is distinguished may seem a violent Paradox, and yet the Bowery comes nearer to distinction than it does to vulgarity. To say that the Bowery is vulgar is, if not an untruth, at least the flat half of the truth.

It is not rare to meet a “ tough ” in the unsavory resorts of the Bowery who is much more nearly related to the chosen aristocrat than to the clean and ordinary citizen of the comfortable middle class. The tough often disports his dirt better than the rising tradesman wears his cleanliness, and in phrase, in ease and sureness of manner, he knows his world more thoroughly, and acts in it more gracefully, than does the rising man in the world of social ambitions, where the nervous desire to rise is accompanied by the graceless fear of falling.

In these resorts, teeming with vice and often with crime, are frequently seen faces expressive of settled independence, of nervous calm, and manners too which are perfect and sure. A general air of distinction sometimes prevails even amidst the extravagances of the rag-time dance. In the case of the women the distinction is sometimes that of purity. Almost always the toughest little dancer has a face of the utmost placidity, and often eyes of transparent blue and ingenuous innocence. About the Bowery girl there is the calmness of the East, and something of its sensuous quality. Her talk is frank and simple. A spade she calls a spade. She speaks of things which women of refinement refer to, if at all, very euphemistically. But she has an instinctive dignity, and no matter what her life may be or how extreme her rag-time dance, she yet has a sense and bearing of privacy which may be none the less keen because it touches life at fewer points.

I mean to suggest, not that there is calmness in vice, but that calmness and independence result from simplicity, and that in a life as simple as the Bowery’s there is an admirable though easy adjustment to the few details of that life, resulting in the fine certainty which gives distinction. The tough who remains imbedded in the enjoyment of a few instincts has the eternal calm of the aristocrat ; for there is an independence in getting down to bed rock. There is repose involved in reaching the limit. The nervous effort to avoid the fall, the fear of temptation, gives a hesitancy to manners. But the tough is sure. He does not hold off from satisfaction. He reposes away down on the firm bosom of the early need of the race, where is no tremulousness or uncertainty. His footing is as firm as that of the aristocrat.

From neither can you take away his quality. But the middle - class person may lose what he has. It is of yesterday, and may not be of to-morrow. He has not the air of tranquil permanence which distinguishes at once the aristocrat and the tough ; for money may go and position may go, but the repose of completely accepted instinct remains to the tough, and the repose of finely worked out temperament to the aristocrat.

The calmness and self-confidence of the tough result in a set of perfect manners. He knows the traditions of his society so thoroughly that he is comparatively exact in etiquette. He is quick to perceive that a stranger does not act right in small ways, and quick to cool in his friendliness in consequence. The style is the man, and no one feels this more quickly than the tough. It is easy to mistake him, to vex him by little infelicities of manner. The most civilized aristocrat feels also the significance of small manners. The style of a man’s minor acts is as significant of his character as are the peculiarities of his written words.

“ I think I could turn and live with animals,” said Walt Whitman. “ Not one is respectable or unhappy.” The tough, by definition, is not respectable and, by nature, he is not unhappy. The aristocrat lays little stress on respectability, and he has not the unhappiness involved in the storm and stress of active mediocrity. The tough, like the aristocrat, is happy, for each finds his account in the daily things about him. Neither is ambitions. Neither lives between times. Of an active, useful Philistine of a college professor a contemplative aristocrat once said, “ I don’t like him, for he does n’t make time stand still.” The professor did not have the illusion of immortality, and consequently not the untemporal quality called distinction.

The tough hates pretension, cant, and inflated rhetoric, and, like the aristocrat of words, he has a succinct way of expressing his likes and dislikes. At a Bowery ball, not long ago, a man held forth at length and with some real eloquence. His talk was discursive, however, and did not meet the instinct for the unsuperfluous which the best Bowery culture demands. As one of his hearers said dryly, “ He’s got wind in his hat.”

The critic was the most prominent leader of Bowery society. He is slow of speech and hesitates, sometimes painfully, but when he does speak every word hits. He does not go about, as is the manner of less cultivated speakers, but strikes home with few words, mainly figurative. Although he is full of the instinctive aversions and tastes of a man of culture, he is a retired prize fighter, and spends most of Ids time in an uncommonly dirty saloon.

At a ball which this leader of Bowery society gave a " hard walk ” took place, in which there were contestants for a prize to be given to him who was the most natural. Any one who should burlesque the walk of the Bowery tough was to be excluded. If the tough walk was to be given, it was to be given right.

“You must do it on de level,” said the leader of society, giving preliminary instructions. “ You must give us de real ting. ’T ain’t no cake walk, dis hard walk. Walk jest as if you was walking on de lane [ Bowery] wid your bundle [girl] on yer arm. Anybody kin look tough, but I want yer to look as hard as de real ting, de bloke on de Bowery, and no harder.”

The tough is not dazzled by the splendor of another world. He knows his own worth and that of his world too well to exaggerate the importance of anything foreign. He meets a stranger as simply a man, who has yet to prove his worth. This is the aristocracy of sifted and self-conscious democracy.

There are not many like this aristocrat of the Bowery. He is, as are all excellent individuals, an exception ; but yet he is representative, too, of the people among whom he lives. The distinction which he possesses is true, in a less degree, of his social environment. He gathers up and expresses in a concentrated form the implicit ideas of ceremony and propriety which are commonly held by his social set. The fact that he is a leader and is followed by a devoted band of " regulars ” is a sign that he represents things dear to many a Bowery heart.