IT is two short blocks from my office near Park Row to the Subway station where I take the express for Belshazzar Court. Eight months in the year it is my endeavor to traverse this distance as quickly as I can. This is done by cutting diagonally across the street traffic. By virtue of the law governing rightangled triangles I thus save as much as fifty feet and one fifth of a minute of time. In the course of a year this saving amounts to sixty minutes, which may be profitably spent over a tworeel presentation of ‘ The Moonshiner’s Bride,’ supplemented by an intimate picture of Lumbering in Saskatchewan. But with the coming of warm weather my habits change. It grows more difficult to plunge into the murk of the Subway.
A foretaste of the languor of June is in the air. The turnstile storm-doors in our office building, which have been put aside for brief periods during the first deceptive approaches of spring, only to come back triumphant from Elba, have been definitively removed. The steel-workers pace their girders twenty floors high almost in mid-season form, and their pneumatic hammers scold and chatter through the sultry hours. The soda-fountains are bright with new compounds whose names ingeniously reflect the world’s progress from day to day in politics, science, and the arts. From my window I can see the long black steamships pushing down to the sea, and they raise vague speculations in my mind about the cost of living in the vicinity of Sorrento and Fontainebleau. On such a day I am reminded of my physician’s orders, issued last December, to walk a mile every afternoon on leaving my office. So I stroll up Broadway with the intention of taking my train farther up-town, at Fourteenth Street.
The doctor did not say stroll. He said a brisk walk with head erect, chest thrown out, diaphragm well contracted, and a general aspect of money in the bank. But here enters human perversity. The only place where I am in the mood to walk after the prescribed military fashion is in the open country. Just where by all accounts I ought to be sauntering without heed to time, studying the lovely texts which Nature has set down in the modest typeforms selected from her inexhaustible fonts, — in the minion of ripening berries, in the nonpareil of crawling insect life, the agate of tendril and filament, and the 12-point diamond of the dust, — there I stride along and see little.
And in the city, where I should swing along briskly, I lounge. What is there on Broadway to linger over? On Broadway, Nature has used her biggest, fattest type-forms. Tall, flat, building fronts, brazen with many windows and ribbed with commercial gilt lettering six feet high; shrieking proclamations of auction sales written in letters of fire on vast canvasses; railway posters in scarlet and blue and green; rotatory barber-poles striving at the national colors and producing vertigo; banners, escutcheons, crests, in all the primary colors — surely none of these things needs poring over. And I know them with my eyes closed. I know the windows where lithe youths in gymnasium dress demonstrate the virtue of home exercises; the windows where other young men do nothing but put on and take off patent reversible near-linen collars; where young women deftly roll cigarettes; where other young women whittle at sticks with miraculously stropped razors. I know these things by heart, yet I linger over them in flagrantly unhygienic attitudes, my shoulders bent forward and my chest and diaphragm in a position precisely the reverse of that prescribed by the doctor.
Perhaps the thing that makes me linger before these familiar sights is the odd circumstance that in Broadway’s shop-windows Nature is almost never herself, but is either supernatural or artificial. Nature, for instance, never intended that razors should cut wood and remain sharp; that linen collars should keep on getting cleaner the longer they are worn; that glass should not break; that ink should not stain; that gauze should not tear; that an object worth five dollars should sell for $1.39; but all these things happen in Broadway windows. Williams, whom I meet now and then, who sometimes turns and walks up with me to Fourteenth Street, pointed out to me the other day how strange a thing it was that the one street which has become a synonym for ‘real life’ to all good suburban Americans is not real at all, but is crowded either with miracles or with imitations.
The windows on Broadway glow with wax fruits and with flowers of muslin and taffeta drawn by bounteous Nature from her storehouses in Parisian garret workshops. Broadway’s ostrich feathers have been plucked in East Side tenements. The huge cigars in the tobacconist’s windows are of wood. The enormous bottles of champagne in the saloons are of cardboard, and empty. The tall scaffoldings of proprietary medicine bottles in the drug shops are of paper. ‘Why,’ said Williams, ‘ even the jewelry sold in the Japanese auction stores is not genuine, and the sellers are not Japanese.’
This bustling mart of commerce, as the generation after the Civil War used to say, is only a world of illusion. Artificial flowers, artificial fruits, artificial limbs, tobacco, rubber, silks, woolens, straws, gold, silver. The young men and women who manipulate razors and elastic cords are real, but not always. Williams and I once stood for a long while and gazed at a young woman posing in a drug-shop window, and argued whether she was alive. Ultimately she winked and Williams gloated over me. But how do I know her wink was real? At any rate the great mass of human life in the windows is artificial. The ladies who smile out of charming morning costumes are obviously of lining and plaster. Their smug Herculean husbands in pajamas preserve their equanimity in the severest winter weather only because of their wireand-plaster constitution. The baby reposing in its beribboned crib is china and excelsior. Illusion everywhere.
But the Broadway crowd is real. You only have to buffet it for five minutes to feel, in eyes and arms and shoulders, how real it is. When I was a boy and was taken to the circus it was always an amazing thing to me that there should be so many people in the street moving in a direction away from the circus. Something of this sensation still besets me whenever we go down in the Subway from Belshazzar Court to hear Caruso. The presence of all the other people on our train is simple enough. They are all on their way to hear Caruso. But what of the crowds in the trains that flash by in the opposite direction? It is not a question of feeling sorry for them. I try to understand and I fail. But on Broadway on a late summer afternoon the obverse is true. The natural thing is that the living tide as it presses south shall beat me back, halt me, eddy around me. I know that there are people moving north with me, but I am not acutely aware of them. This onrush of faces converges on me alone. It is I against half the world.
And then suddenly out of the surge of faces one leaps out at me. It is Williams, whose doctor has told him that the surest way of fighting down the lust for tobacco is to walk down from his office to the ferry every afternoon. Williams and I salute each other after the fashion of Broadway, which is to exchange greetings backward over the shoulder. This is the first step in an elaborate minuet. Because we have passed each other before recognition came, our hands fly out backward. Now we whirl half around, so that I who have been moving north face the west, while Williams, who has been traveling south, now looks east. Our clasped hands strain at each other as we stand there poised for flight after the first greeting. A quarter of a minute perhaps, and we have said good-bye.
But if the critical quarter of a minute passes, there ensues a change of geographical position which corresponds to a change of soul within us. I suddenly say to myself that there are plenty of trains to be had at Fourteenth Street. Williams recalls that another boat will leave Battery Place shortly after the one he is bound for. So the tension of our outstretched arms relaxes. I, who have been facing west, complete the half circle and swing south. Williams veers due north, and we two men stand face to face. The beat and clamor of the crowd fall away from us like a well-trained stage mob. We are in Broadway, but not of it.
‘Well, what’s the good word?’ says Williams.
When two men meet on Broadway the spirit of optimism strikes fire. We begin by asking each other what the good word is. We take it for granted that neither of us has anything but a chronicle of victory and courage to relate. What other word but the good word is tolerable in the lexicon of living, upstanding men? Failure is only for the dead. Surrender is for the man with yellow in his nature. So Williams and I pay our acknowledgments to this best of possible worlds. I give Williams the good word. I make no allusion to the fact that I have spent a miserable night in communion with neuralgia; how can that possibly concern him? Another manuscript came back this morning from an editor who regretted that his is the most unintelligent body of readers in the country. The third cook in three weeks left us last night after making vigorous reflections on my wife’s good nature and my own appearance. Only an hour ago, as I was watching the long, black steamers bound for Sorrento and Fontainebleau, the monotony of one’s treadmill work, the flat unprofitableness of scribbling endlessly on sheets of paper, had become almost a nausea. But Williams will know nothing of this from me. Why should he? He may have been sitting up all night with a sick child. At this very moment the thought of the little parched lips, the moan, the unseeing eyes, may be tearing at his entrails; but he in turn gives me the good word, and many others after that, and we pass on.
But sometimes I doubt. This splendid optimism of people on Broadway, in the Subway and in the shops and offices — is it really a sign of high spiritual courage, or is it just lack of sensibility? Do we find it easy to keep a stiff upper lip, to buck up, to never say die, because we are brave men, or simply because we lack the sensitiveness and the imagination to react to pain? It may be even worse than that. It may be part of our commercial gift for window-dressing, for putting up a good front.
Sometimes I feel that Williams has no right to be walking down Broadway on business when there is a stricken child at home. The world cannot possibly need him at that moment as much as his own flesh and blood does. It is not courage; it is brutish indifference. At such times I am tempted to dismiss as mythical all this fine talk about feelings that run deep beneath the surface, and bruised hearts that ache under the smile. If a man really suffers he will show it. If a man cultivates the habit of not showing emotion he will end by having none to show. How much of Broadway’s optimism is — But here I am paraphrasing William James’s Principles of Psychology, which the reader can just as well consult for himself in the latest revised edition of 1907.
Also, I am exaggerating. Most likely Williams’s children are all in perfect health,and my envelope from the editor has brought a check instead of a rejection slip. It is on such occasions that Williams and I, after shaking hands the way a locomotive takes on water on the run, wheel around, halt, and proceed to buy something at the rate of two for a quarter. If any one is ever inclined to doubt the spirit of American fraternity, it is only necessary to recall the number of commodities for men that sell two for twenty-five cents. In theory, the two cigars which Williams and I buy for twenty-five cents are worth fifteen cents apiece. As a matter of fact they are probably ten-cent cigars. But the shopkeeper is welcome to his extra nickel. It is a small price to pay for the seal of comradeship that stamps his pair of cigars selling for a single quarter. Two men who have concluded a business deal in which each has commendably tried to get the better of the other may call for twenty-five cent perfectos or for half-dollar Dreadnoughts. I understand there are such. But friends sitting down together will always demand cigars that go for a round sum, two for a quarter or three for fifty (if the editor’s check is what it ought to be).
When people speak of the want of real comradeship among women, I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons may not be that the prices which women are accustomed to pay are individualistic instead of fraternal. The soda fountains and the street cars do not dispense goods at the rate of two items for a single coin. It is infinitely worse in the department stores. Treating a friend to something that costs $2.79 is inconceivable. But I have really wandered from my point.
‘Well, be good,’ says Williams, and rushes off to catch his boat.
The point I wish to make is that on Broadway people pay tribute to the principle of goodness that rules this world, both in the way they greet and in the way they part. We salute by asking each other what the good word is. When we say good-bye we enjoin each other to be good. The humorous assumption is that gay devils like Williams and me need to be constantly warned against straying off into the primrose paths that run out of Broadway.
Simple, humorous, average American man! You have left your suburban couch in time to walk half a mile to the station and catch the 7.59 for the city. You have read your morning paper; discussed the weather, the tariff, and the prospects for lettuce with your neighbor; and made the office only a minute late. You have been fastened to your desk from nine o’clock to five, with half an hour for lunch, which you have eaten in a clamorous, overheated restaurant while you watched your hat and coat. At odd moments during the day the thought of doctor’s bills, rent bills, school bills, has insisted on receiving attention. At the end of the day, laden with parcels from the market, from the hardware store, from the seedman, you are bound for the ferry to catch the 5.43, when you meet Smith, who, having passed the good word, sends you on your way with the injunction to be good — not to play roulette, not to open wine, not to turkey-trot, not to joy-ride, not to haunt the stage door. Be good, O simple, humorous, average suburban American!
I take back that word suburban. The Sunday Supplement has given it a meaning which is not mine. I am speaking only of the suburban in spirit, of a simplicity, a meekness which is of the soul only. Outwardly there is nothing suburban about the crowd on lower Broadway. The man in the street is not at all the diminutive, apologetic creature with side whiskers whom Mr. F. B. Opper brought forth and named Common People, who begat the StrapHanger, who begat the Rent-Payer and the Ultimate Consumer. The crowd on lower Broadway is alert and well set up. Yes, though one hates to do it, I must say ‘clean-cut.’ The men on the sidewalk are young, limber, sharpfaced, almost insolent young men. There are not very many old men in the crowd, though I see any number of gray-haired young men. Seldom do you detect the traditional signs of age, the sagging lines of the face, the relaxed abdominal contour, the tamed spirit. The young, the young-old, the old-young, but rarely quite the old.
I am speaking only of externals. Clean-cut, eager faces are very frequently disappointing. A very ordinary mind may be working behind that clear sweep of brow and nose and chin. I have known the shock of young men who look like kings of Wall Street and speak like shoe clerks. They are shoe clerks. But the appearance is there, that athletic carriage which is helped out by our triumphant, ready-made clothing. I suppose I ought to detest the tailor’s tricks which iron out all ages and all stations into a uniformity of padded shoulders and trim waistlines and hips. I imagine I ought to despise our habit of wearing elegant shoddy where the European chooses honest, clumsy woolens. But I am concerned only with externals, and in outward appearances a Broadway crowd beats the world. Æsthetically we simply are in a class by ourselves when compared with the Englishman and the Teuton in their skimpy, ill-cut garments. Let the British and German ambassadors at Washington do their worst. This is my firm belief and I will maintain it against the world. The truth must out. Ruat cœlum. Ich kann nicht anders. J’y suis, j’y reste.
Williams laughs at my lyrical outbursts. But I am not yet through. I still have to speak of the women in the crowd. What an infinitely finer thing is a woman than a man of her class! To see this for yourself you have only to walk up Broadway until the southwardbearing stream breaks off and the tide begins to run from west to east. You have passed out of the commercial district into the region of factories. It is well on toward dark, and the barracks that go by the unlovely name of loft buildings, are pouring out their battalions of needle-workers. The crowd has become a mass. The nervous pace of lower Broadway slackens to the steady, patient tramp of a host. It is an army of women, with here and there a flying detachment of the male.
On the faces of the men the day’s toil has written its record even as on the women, but in a much coarser hand. Fatigue has beaten down the soul of these men into brutish indifference, but in the women it has drawn fine the flesh only to make it more eloquent of the soul. Instead of listlessness, there is wistfulness. Instead of vacuity you read mystery. Innate grace rises above the vulgarity of the dress. Cheap, tawdry blouse and imitation willowplume walk shoulder to shoulder with the shoddy coat of the male, copying Fifth Avenue as fifty cents may attain to five dollars. But the men’s shoddy is merely a horror, whereas woman transfigures and subtilizes the cheap material. The spirit of grace which is the birthright of her sex cannot be killed — not even by the presence of her best young man in Sunday clothes. She is finer by the heritage of her sex, and America has accentuated her title. This America which drains her youthful vigor with overwork, which takes from her cheeks the color she has brought from her Slavic or Italian peasant home, makes restitution by remoulding her in more delicate, more alluring lines, gives her the high privilege of charm — and neurosis.
Williams and I pause at the Subway entrances and watch the earth suck in the crowd. It lets itself be swallowed up with meek good-nature. Our amazing good-nature! Political philosophers have deplored the fact. They have urged us to be quicker-tempered, more resentful of being stepped upon, more inclined to write letters to the editor. I agree that only in that way can we be rid of political bosses, of brutal policemen, of ticket-speculators, of taxicab extortioners, of insolent waiters, of janitors, of indecent congestion in travel, of unheated cars in the winter and barred-up windows in summer. I am at heart with the social philosophers. But then I am not typical of the crowd. When my neighbor’s elbow injects itself into the small of my back, I twist around and glower at him. I forget that his elbow is the innocent mechanical result of a whole series of elbows and backs extending the length of the car, to where the first cause operates in the form of a station-guard’s shoulder ramming the human cattle into their stalls. In the faces about me there is no resentment. Instead of smashing windows, instead of raising barricades in the Subway and hanging the train-guards with their own lanterns about their necks, the crowd sways and bends to the lurching of the train, and young voices call out cheerfully, ‘Plenty of room ahead.’
Horribly good-natured! We have taken a phrase which is the badge of our shame and turned it into a jest. Plenty of room ahead! If this were a squat, ill-formed proletarian race obviously predestined to subjection, one might understand. But that a crowd of trim, well-cut, self-reliant Americans, sharp-featured, alert, insolent as I have called them, that they should submit is a puzzle. Perhaps it is because of the fierce democracy of it all. The crush, the enforced intimacies of physical contact, the feeling that a man’s natural condition is to push and be pushed, to shove ahead when the opportunity offers and to take it like a man when no chance presents itself—that is equality. A seat in the Subway is like the prizes of life for which men have fought in these United States. You struggle, you win or lose. If the other man wins there is no envy; admiration rather, provided he has not shouldered and elbowed out of reason. That godlike freedom from envy is passing today, and perhaps the good nature of the crowd in the Subway will pass. I see signs of the approaching change. People do not call out, ‘Plenty of room ahead,’ so frequently as they used to.
Good-natured when dangling from the strap in the Subway, good-natured in front of baseball bulletins on Park Row, good-natured in the face of so much oppression and injustice, where is the supposed cruelty of the ‘mob’? I am ready to affirm on oath that the mob is not vindictive, that it is not cruel. It may be a bit sharp-tongued, fickle, a bit mischievous, but in the heart of the crowd there is no evil passion. The evil comes from the leaders, the demagogues, the professional distorters of right thinking and right feeling. The crowd in the bleachers is not the clamorous, brute mob of tradition. I have watched faces in the bleachers and in the grand-stand and seen little of that fury which is supposed to animate the fan. For the most part he sits there with folded arms, thinlipped, eager, but after all conscious that there are other things in life besides baseball. No, it is the leaders, the baseball editors, the cartoonists, the humorists, the professional stimulators of ‘local pride,’ with their exaggerated gloatings over a game won, their poisonous attacks upon a losing team, who are responsible. It is these demagogues who drill the crowd in the gospel of loving only a winner — but if I keep on I shall be in politics before I know it.
If you see in the homeward crowd in the Subway a face over which the pall of depression has settled, that face very likely is bent over the comic pictures in the evening paper. I cannot recall seeing any one smile over these long serials of humorous adventure which run from day to day and from year to year. I have seen readers turn mechanically to these lurid comics and pore over them, foreheads puckered into a frown, lips unconsciously spelling out the long legends which issue in the form of little balloons and lozenges from that amazing portrait gallery of dwarfs, giants, shrilling viragos and their diminutive husbands, devil-children, quadrupeds, insects,—an entire zoölogy. If any stimulus rises from these pages to the puzzled brain, the effect is not visible. I imagine that by dint of repetition through the years these grotesque creations have become a reality to millions of readers. It is no longer a question of humor, it is a vice. The Desperate Desmonds, the Newly-weds, and the Dingbats, have acquired a horrible fascination. Otherwise I cannot see why readers of the funny page should appear to be memorizing pages from Euclid.
This by way of anticipation. What the doctor has said of exercise being a habit which grows easy with time is true. It is the first five minutes of walking that are wearisome. I find myself strolling past Fourteenth Street, where I was to take my train for Belshazzar Court. Never mind, FortySecond Street will do as well. I am now on a different Broadway. The crowd is no longer north and south, but flows in every direction. It is churned up at every corner and spreads itself across the squares and open places. Its appearance has changed. It is no longer a factory population. Women still predominate, but they are the women of the professions and trades which centre about Madison Square — business women of independent standing, women from the magazine offices, the publishing houses, the insurance offices. You detect the bachelor girl in the current which sets in toward the home quarters of the undomesticated, the little Bohemias, the foreign eatingplaces whose fixed table d’hôte prices flash out in illumined signs from the side streets. Still farther north and the crowd becomes tinged with the current of that Broadway which the outside world knows best. The idlers begin to mingle with the workers, men in English clothes with canes, women with plumes and jeweled reticules. You catch the first heart-beat of Little Old New York.
The first stirrings of this gayer Broadway die down as quickly almost as they manifested themselves. The idlers and those who minister to them have heard the call of the dinner hour and have vanished, into hotel doors, into shabbier quarters by no means in keeping with the cut of their garments and their apparent indifference to useful employment. Soon the street is almost empty. It is not a beautiful Broadway in this garish interval between the last of the matinée and shopping crowd and the vanguard of the night crowd. The monster electric sign-boards have not begun to gleam and flash and revolve and confound the eye and the senses. At night the electric Niagara hides the squalid fronts of ugly brick, the dark doorways, the clutter of fire-escapes, the rickety wooden hoardings. Not an imperial street this Broadway at 6.30 of a summer’s afternoon. Cheap jewelry shops, cheap tobacconist’s shops, cheap haberdasheries, cheap restaurants, grimy little newspaper agencies and ticket-offices, and ‘demonstration’ stores for patent foods, patent waters, patent razors.
O Gay White Way, you are far from gay in the fast-fading light, before the magic hand of Edison wipes the wrinkles from your face and galvanizes you into hectic vitality; far from alluring with your tinsel shop-windows, with your puffy-faced, unshaven men leaning against door-posts and chewing pessimistic toothpicks, your sharp-eyed newsboys wise with the wisdom of the Tenderloin, and your itinerant women whose eyes wander from side to side. It is not in this guise that you draw the hearts of millions to yourself, O dingy, Gay White Way, O Via Lobsteria Dolorosa!
Well, when a man begins to moralize it is time to go home. I have walked farther than I intended, and I am soft from lack of exercise, and tired. The romance of the crowd has disappeared. Romance cannot survive that short passage of Longacre Square, where the art of the theatre and of the picturepostcard flourish in an atmosphere impregnated with gasolene. As I glance into the windows of the automobile salesrooms and catch my own reflection in the enamel of Babylonian limousines I find myself thinking all at once of the children at home. They expand and fill up the horizon. Broadway disappears. I smile into the face of a painted promenader, but how is she to know that it is not at her I smile but at the sudden recollection of what the baby said at the breakfast-table that morning? Like all good New Yorkers when they enter the Subway, I proceed to choke up all my senses against contact with the external world, and thus resolving myself into a state of coma, I dip down into the bowels of the earth, whence in due time I am spewed out two short blocks from Belshazzar Court.