The Call of the Shirt
ON a certain much-traveled street in the “Back Bay” region of Boston, over the door of a basement notion store, appears this sign: “Laundry and Library.” I have noted it. often as I passed it, thinking how typical it was of the city about it— how readily translatable into the motto of the Back Bay dwellers: “Cleanliness and Culture.” And yet as I have passed it by, or as I have descended the half-dozen steps to the basement door and thrust my weekly bundle through the slide, my mind has reverted with sudden longing to another æsthetic laundryman in another land; and this sign of reading-room and washtub has seemed a mocking echo of the galling chains of civilization which I wear. I see instead of brick-front dwellings, and asphalt pavements, and rattling trolley cars, and stone-curbed grass plots, a gently-flowing brook, a boundless grassy carpet, a man, reclining in happy idleness, and over his head, flapping patiently in the breeze, a slowly drying shirt that knows too well its mission to part too readily with its moisture. Somewhere today — I know it by the feeling of the day — my old friend Jack the Hobo is thus lying by the stream and waiting — waiting for his shirt to dry. And were I half the man I should be, I know I would throw off the restraining chains, and flee from this mocking sign of “Laundry and Library,” and go out there too, and wash my own linen garments.
It was on the bank of Salt Creek that I met my friend Jack the Hobo; not the mythical Salt River to whose sources we consign our last-year politicians, but a real stream which flows from countless springs in fertile Illinois fields and woods, by easy curves and reaches, through forests of elm and butternut, by grassy slopes and meadows that in springtime are heavenly blue with masses of longstemmed violets, — which flows reluctantly past all this, as what appreciative river would not, singing a happy, crooning sort of a song to itself whenever a twig or a stone gives it opportunity to catch hold and linger, — flows under an iron bridge, and past an old lime kiln that resembles nothing else so much as the ruin of a mediæval castle, and knows that it does, and leans over the placid water to admire in its own reflection the clinging woodbine, and the age-stained rocks, — flows past this and much more, and at last, after doubling on its tracks half a dozen times, hesitating, dodging, for all the world like a maiden longing, yet fearing, to enter her lover’s arms, flies at last to the bosom of the Des Plaines, and thenceforth, as a true helpmeet, sinks its identity in that of the larger stream. That is the Salt Creek by which I wandered on the happy Sunday on which I met my friend the Hobo, and dined with him al fresco on the best the land could furnish. Dined with him ? Yes, and learned of him; for of all unschooled philosophers, of all illogical logicians, of all unlettered poets and ungrammatical essayists, commend me to this Hobo Jack who, on that Sunday, taught me the. true love of outof-doors as we lay on that same grassy bank at the foot of the ivy-clad lime kiln, waiting — waiting for his shirt to dry.
But that you may appreciate the meeting of the Hobo and of myself, the Wanderer, I must first take you a bit into my confidence and confess, frankly that up to that moment my wandering had had a certain commercial tendency. I came out into these woods with a buoyant heart and glad; but the buoyancy was at so much per column. Just one week from the day on which I wandered there, the good people of the neighboring city would read in their Sunday papers how joyous surrounding nature looked when seen through my eyes, and of the particulars of travel necessary to bring them to the place whence I saw it.
I came down from the iron bridge and strolled along the path on the edge of the bank. It was in the springtime and the creek was full. Covering the woodland floor as far as eye could see was an ankledeep carpet that not all Brussels nor the Orient could have produced, — a dainty sweet-scented Illinois carpet, of spring beauties and of pink phlox. There was a spring in the midst of it, and a tiny run thence to the creek, and, close by, a giant elm, yielding to some tempest, had fallen so as to form a bridge across the water. The path wound about the upturned roots, and as I followed it the scent of wild flowers in my nostrils gave way suddenly to the pungent odor of burning wood, with a strange, indefinable concomitant which thrilled my gastric nerve and made me aware that I was hungry. An instant later, as I came out from the shadow of the elm-roots, I almost stumbled into a campfire, and brought up face to face with its astonished proprietor.
It was the fire that caught me first, a real cooking fire of few sticks and many coals, and concentrated heat. Over it, from a crosspiece which rested in two crotches, hung an iron kettle, — a broken iron kettle, a tramp among kettles,—and in this, bobbing merrily about in the boiling water, a soup bone. It was a real camp fire and a real camp kettle, and I could not have gone a step away from them to save my neck — which happily was not at that moment in imminent danger.
As for the proprietor of all this woodland happiness, Jack the Hobo, who had sprung to his feet and has been patiently standing all this time, waiting while I finish my rhapsody on his cooking paraphernalia, he was just Jack, a big, burly, homely man, clad in old trousers and jacket, and with his coat-collar buttoned closely about his throat.
“Hello,” said I, by way of salutation.
“Hello, matey,” said he, with the added word conveying a spirit of hospitality which I, unschooled in woodland ways, had been altogether unable to put into speech. We stood for a moment eying each other, measuring each other by our own standards, and then with a wave of my hand at the kettle I said, “Soup smells good.”
It was all I could think of in which we might be supposed to have a common interest.
“What’s the time?” said he.
“Just noon,” said I.
“Stay and eat ?” he asked, and I gladly assented. I had a boxful of luncheon myself which I divided with him; but it was a poor exchange for the soup he offered me (in the carefully rinsed remnant of an oyster tin), or the savory coffee he poured, clear as from the most expensive French-drip pot, over the ragged edge of a can which still wore on one side the scorched effigy of a scarlet tomato.
We ate in silence, eying each other now and then, till our appetites began to lessen; then his gaze wandered to my folded pocket camera.
“For pictures?” he asked.
“Yes,” said I. “There are some fine ones to be had hereabouts.”
“So I see by the paper,”said he. And then he laughed, a jolly hobo laugh. “Say,” he added, “what do you think I seen in the papers? Gee!” Again he laughed. “Say, matey, they was a piece in the papers last week that called the creek this here thing runs into, the ’beyoutiful Des Plaines.’ The ’be-you-tiful Des Plaines!” Again he burst out merrily. “ The ‘ be-youtiful Des Plaines ! Say, what d’ ye think of that ? Would n’t it jar you some ?”
It did jar me, indeed; especially as he drew from his pocket a moment later a fragment of Sunday paper containing the article to which he referred — a half page of pictures from my camera, a half page of text, and the signature in large and small “caps,” “Wanderer.” It was a hard blow my hobo friend had delivered. I was roused to a form of selfdefense.
“It seems to strike you pretty well,” said I.
“Me? Oh, gee!” Another paroxysm followed this. My hobo friend was very mirthful. “Why, say! ” he broke out suddenly, “I wisht you’d seen the rivers I seen. I wisht you had. I wisht you’d seen ’em. I been where you can just lay down on your back and look up at the sky and see mountains all around — yes, and real woods, too. I seen places where you would n’t never want to do nothin’ all day but just lay there, smellin’ them flowers, and listenin’ to them birds — and just layin’ there. Why, I seen places like that where they’s trout, and bass, — yes, and wild turkeys, too. And then this feller calls it the ’be-youtiful Des Plaines.’”
“What are you doing out here, then, if this is so poor and other places so fine ? ” I demanded.
My nerve of self-esteem had been jarred again.
For a moment my host was almost embarrassed. He laughed consciously, like a small boy caught enjoying himself at a girl’s party. “ Me ? ” he asked. “ Me ? Why —I ’m workin’ now. I can’t go out where them things is. I just come out here — Oh, thunder! I tell you what I come out here for. I come out to wash my shirt.”
He pointed to the limb of a neighboring tree, where, sure enough, the garment hung limply in the breeze. I eyed it in silence. I had not vet learned the real philosophy. To me it was only a shirt, recently laundered. I did not see in it then, as I did later, no shirt at all. but a flag, the banner of liberty, of equality, and true happiness. I waited for Hobo Jack to enlighten me.
“You see, I’m really workin’,” he began. “I do chores about these here rhubarbian settlements. I start out on Monday, takin’ a job to cut grass. Maybe I work all day Monday, maybe not. Some weeks I stick it out till Tuesday, or even to Thursday or Friday, but I get to feelin’ uneasy. First off I pretend I do’ know what’s the matter with me. I shake it off. I say I got to work. But bimeby I can’t stand if no longer. ‘Hell! ’ I say to myself. ‘I just got to wash my shirt, that’s what’s the matter with me.’
“So I come out here like this, to some place where they’s a brook or a creek or a river, or somethin’ wet, and some woods and grass and birds, and they ain’t no folks; and I pull that shirt off and slosh it around in the water awhile, and then I hang it up on the branch of a tree.
“Then I build me a campfire and cook something to eat, and lay down on my back and just enjoy, — just plain enjoy, —that’s all. Sometimes it seems to me as if people in these here settlements did n’t really know how to do that — to just enjoy. Well I set right here enjoyin’ till I think that shirt of mine is dry. Maybe it takes a day, maybe two days — more likely it’s close to a week before I feel real sure that shirt is dry enough so it’s safe to put it on again. Then I put it on and go back to town and take a job, till I think it needs washin’ again.”
The sun is warm to-day. The wind is very gentle. The orchards are all a-bloom — the cherries falling fast, the pears in their prime, the apples just peeping from pink-tipped buds. There is a big Baltimore oriole in the elm over my window, hopping from branch to branch, pecking at something, I know not what, but stopping between bites for irregular phrases of his loud-whistled melody. Somehow it lures my mind back to that moment when at the explanation of Hobo Jack the true meaning of an ancient craving flashed upon me.