A Nation in a Hurry

IN early days of steam navigation on the Mississippi, the river captains, it is said, had the playful habit, when pressed for time, or enjoying a spurt with a rival, of running their engines with a “ darky ” seated on the safety valve. One’s first impression, after a season of lazy Continental traveling, and visiting in somnolent English country houses, is, that this emblematical Ethiopian should be quartered on our national arms.

Zola says, in Nouvelle Campagne, that his vivid impressions are mostly received during the first twenty-four hours, in new surroundings ; the mind, like a photographic film, quickly losing its sensitiveness. This fleeting receptiveness makes returning Americans painfully conscious of “ nerves ” in the home atmosphere, and of the headlong pace at which we are living.

It is but a poor excuse to lay this peculiarity to our climate. Our grandparents, and their parents, lived peaceful lives beneath these same skies, undisturbed by the morbid influences that are supposed to key us to such a painful concert pitch.

There was an Indian-summer languor in the air, as we steamed up the bay last October, that apparently invited repose ; yet no sooner had we set foot on our native dock, and taken one good whiff of home air, than all our acquired calm disappeared. People who, ten days before, would have sat (at a journey’s end) contentedly in a waiting room, while their luggage was being sorted by leisurely officials, hustled nervously about, nagging the custom-house officers and egging on the porters, as though the “ saving ” of the next half hour was the prime object of existence.

Considering how extravagant we Americans are in other ways, it seems curious that we should be so economical of time ! It was useless to struggle against the current, however, or to attempt to hold one’s self back. Before ten minutes had passed, the old familiar unpleasant sensation of being in a hurry took possession of my mind. It was irresistible and all-pervading; from the movements of the crowds in the streets to the whistle of the harbor tugs, everything breathed of haste. The very dogs had apparently no time to loiter, but scurried about, as though late for their engagements.

Our transit from dock to hotel was like the visit to a new circle in the Inferno, where trains rumble eternally overhead, and cable cars glide and block around a pale - faced throng of the “damned,” who, in expiation of their sins, are driven forever forward, toward an unreachable goal.

A curious curse has fallen upon our people, an “ influence ” which tempts us to do in an hour just twice as much as can be accomplished in sixty minutes, “ Do as well as you can,” whispers the influence, “but do it quickly!” That motto might be engraved upon the front of our homes and business buildings.

It is on account of this new standard that rapidity in business transactions is appreciated more than correctness of detail. A broker to-day will take greater credit for having received and executed an order for Chicago, and returned an answer within six minutes, than for any amount of careful work. The order may have been ill executed and the details mixed, but celerity is the point dwelt upon.

The young man who expects to succeed in business must be a hustler, have a snapshot style in conversation, patronize rapid-transit vehicles, understand shorthand, and eat at “ Breathless Breakfasts.” (“ Quick Lunch ” is, I believe, the correct title.) Having been taken, recently, to one of these establishments to absorb buckwheat cakes (and very good they were), I studied the ways of our modern time-saving young man.

It is his habit, upon entering, to dash for the bill of fare, and to give his order (if he is adroit enough to catch one of the maids on the fly) before removing either coat or hat; at least fifteen seconds may be economized in this way. Once seated, the luncher begins on anything at hand, — bread, coleslaw, crackers, or catsup. When the dish ordered arrives, he gets his fork into it as it appears over his shoulder, and cleans the plate before the accompanying sauce makes its appearance, so that is eaten by itself, or with bread. A cup of coffee or tea goes down in two swallows. Little piles of cakes are cut in quarters, and disappear in four mouthfuls, much after the fashion of children down the ogre’s throat in the mechanical toy; mastication being either a lost art or considered a foolish waste of energy. A really accomplished luncher can assimilate his last quarter of cakes, wiggle into his coat, and pay his check at the desk at the same moment. The next, he is down the block in pursuit of a receding trolley.

To any one fresh from the Continent, where the entire machinery of trade comes to a standstill from eleven to one o’clock, that déjeuner may be taken tranquilly, the nervous tension pervading a restaurant here is agonizing, and (what is worse) catching ! During recent visits to the business centres of our cities, I have found that the idea of eating becomes repugnant to me, and I discover myself sharing the general impression that it is wrong to waste time on anything so unproductive. Last week a friend offered me a “ luncheon tablet ” from a box on his desk. “ It’s as good as a meal,” he said, “ and much more expeditious ! ”

The real joy of an up-to-date business man, however, is when he can do two things at once. The proprietor of one down-town restaurant has the stock quotations exhibited on a blackboard at the end of his shop. In this way his patrons can keep in touch with the market, as they stoke up.

A parlor car toward a journey’s end is another excellent place to observe home ways. Coming on from Washington the other day, the passengers began to show signs of restlessness near Newark. Books and papers were thrown aside ; a general “ uprising and unveiling ” followed, accompanied by the unique American custom of having our clothes brushed in one another’s faces. By the time Jersey City appeared on the horizon, every man, woman, and child in the car was jammed, baggage in hand, into the stuffy little passage near the entrance, swaying and wobbling about while the train backed and filled. The explanation of this conduct is simple. The influence was at work, preventing those people from acting like other civilized mortals, and remaining seated until their train had come to a standstill.

Being fresh from the “other side,” and retaining some of my foreign calm, I remained in my chair. The surprise on the faces of the other passengers warned me, however, that it would not be safe to carry my pose too far, and the porter, puzzled by the unaccustomed sight, touched me kindly on the shoulder, and asked if I felt sick.

So, to avoid all affectation of superiority, I now struggle into my greatcoat at Elizabeth, and meekly join the standing army of martyrs, or scamper with them from the yet moving car to the boat, and from the boat before it has been moored to its landing pier !

In Paris, on taking an omnibus, you are given a number and the right to the first vacant seat. When the seats of a “ ’bus ” are occupied it receives no further passengers. Imagine a traction line attempting such a reform here! There would be a riot, and the conductors would be hanged on the nearest trolley poles in an hour ! To prevent a citizen from crowding into an overfull vehicle, and stamping on its occupants in the process, would be to infringe one of his dearest privileges, not to mention his chance of riding free.

A small boy of my acquaintance tells me he rarely finds it necessary to pay in a trolley. The conductors are too hurried, and too preoccupied pocketing their share of the receipts, to keep count. “ When he passes, I just look blank ! ” remarked the ingenious youth.

Of all the circles in the community, however, our idle class suffer the most acutely from lack of time, though, like Charles Lamb’s gentlemen, they have all there is. From the moment a man of leisure and his wife wake up in the morning until they drop into a fitful slumber at night, their day is an agitated chase. No matter where or when you meet them, they are always on the wing.

“ Am I late again ? ” gasped a thin little woman to me, the other evening, as she hurried into the drawing-room, where she had kept her guests waiting for their dinner. “ I’ve been driven so all day, I’m a wreck ! ” A glance at her hatchet-faced husband revealed the fact that he too was chasing after a stray half hour lost somewhere in his youth. His color had gone, in the pursuit, and most of his hair, while his hands had acquired a twitch, as though urging on a tired steed.

Go and ask that lady for a cup of tea at twilight. Ten to one she will receive you with her hat on, explaining in excuse that she has not had time to take it off since breakfast. If she writes to you, her notes are signed, “ In great haste,” or, “ In a tearing hurry.” She is out of her house by eight-thirty most mornings ; yet when calling will sit on the edge of her chair, and assure you that she has not a moment to stay, and “ has only run in to — ” etc. Just what drives her so Hard is a mystery, for, beyond a vague charity meeting or two and some calls, she accomplishes little. Although wealthy and childless, with no cares and few worries, she succumbs to nervous prostration every two or three years, “ from overwork ” !

Listen to a compatriot’s account of a European trip ! He will tell you how short the ocean crossing was, giving hours and minutes with zest, as though he had got ahead of Father Time in a transaction. Then will follow a list of the countries “ done ” during the tour. I know a lady lying ill to-day, because she would hustle herself and her children, in six weeks last summer, through a Continental tour that should have occupied three months. She had no particular reason for hurrying; in fact, she got ahead of her schedule, and had to wait in Paris for the steamer, — a detail, however, that in no way diminished her pleasure in having accomplished so much during her holiday. This same lady deplores her lack of leisure hours, yet if she finds by her engagement book that there is a free week ahead, she will run on to Washington or Lakewood, “ for a change,” or organize a party to Florida and New Orleans !

To realize how our “ upper ten ” scramble through existence, one must also contrast their fidgety way of feeding with the bovine calm in which a German absorbs his nourishment, and the hours an Italian can pass over his meals. An American dinner party affords us this opportunity. There is an impression that the fad for short dinners came to us from England. If this is true (which I doubt; it fits too nicely with our temperament to have been imported), we owe H. R. H. a debt of gratitude for having exorcised the “ seven to eleven ” incubus that brooded over society half a generation ago.

Like all converts, however, we are too zealous. From oysters to fruit, dinners now are a breathless steeple chase, during which we take our viand hedges and champagne ditches at a dead run, with conversation pushed at the same speed. To be silent would be to imply that one was not having a good time ; so the guests rattle and gobble on toward the finger-bowl winning post, only to find that rest is not there.

As the hostess pilots the ladles away to the drawing-room, she whispers to her spouse, “ You won’t smoke too long, will you ? ” So we are mulcted in the enjoyment of even that last resource of weary humanity, the cigar, and are hustled away from our smoke and coffee, to find that our appearance upstairs is the signal for a general move. One of the older ladies rises ; the next moment, the whole circle, like a flock of frightened birds, are up and off, crowding into the hallway, calling for their carriages, and confusing the unfortunate servants who are attempting to cloak and overshoe them.

Bearing in mind that the guests came as late as they dared without being absolutely uncivil, that the dinner was served as rapidly as was materially possible, and that the circle broke up as soon as the meal had ended, one asks one’s self in wonder why, if dinner is such a bore that it has to be scrambled through, coûte que coûte, people continue to dine out.

It is within the bounds of possibility that many of us may be forced to hurry through our days, and that àla longue dining out becomes a weariness. The one place, however, where one might expect to find people reposeful and calm is the theatre. The labor of the day is then over ; the audience have assembled for an hour or two of relaxation and amusement. Yet it is at the play that restlessness is most apparent. Watch an audience (which, be it remarked in passing, has arrived late) during the last ten minutes of a performance. No sooner do people discover that the end is drawing near than they begin to struggle into their wraps. By the time the players have lined up before the footlights, the house is full of scurrying backs. Past, indeed, are the unruffled days when a heroine was expected (after the action of a play had ended) to deliver the closing envoi dear to the hearts of Queen Anne writers.

Thackeray writes : —

“ The play is done ; the curtain drops,
Slow falling to the prompter’s bell ;
A moment yet the actor stops,
And looks around to say farewell.”

A comedian who attempted any such abuse of the situation to-day would find himself addressing empty benches. Before he had finished the first line of his epilogue, the public would be seated in the rapid transit cars. No talent, no novelty, holds our audiences to the end of a performance. On the opening night of this opera season, one third of the boxes and orchestra stalls were vacant before Romeo (who, being a foreigner, was taking his time) had expired.

One overworked matron of my acquaintance has perfected an ingenious and time-saving combination. By signaling from a window near her opera box to a footman below, she is able to get her carriage at least two minutes sooner than her neighbors. During the last act of an opera like Tannhäuser or Faust, in which the inconsiderate composer has placed a musical gem at the end, this lady is worth watching. After struggling into her wraps and overshoes she stands (hand on door) at the back of her box, listening to the singers. At a certain moment she hurries to the window, makes her signal, scuttles back, hears Calvé pour her soul out in “ Anges purs, anges radieux,” yet manages to get down the stairs and into her carriage before the curtain has fallen.

We deplore the prevailing habit of “ slouch,” yet hurry is the cause of it. Our cities are left unsightly, because we cannot spare time to beautify them. Nervous diseases are distressingly prevalent ; still we hurry, hurry, hurry, until, as a diplomatist recently remarked to me, the whole nation seemed to him to be “ but five minutes ahead of an epileptic fit ”!

The curious part of the matter is that, after several weeks at home, all that was strange at first seems quite natural and sane. We find ourselves thinking with pity of benighted foreigners and their humdrum ways, and would resent any attempts at reform. What, for instance, would replace, for enterprising souls, the joy of taking their matutinal car at a flying leap, or the rapture of being first out of a theatre ? What does part of a last act or the “ Star ” song matter in comparison with five minutes of valuable time ? Like the river captains, we propose to run under full head of steam and get there, or bu— — explode !

Eliot Gregory.