Urban Sketches

LOOKING in upon graduation exercises during this glowing month of June — a month of which these exuberant boys and girls seem a most natural and final expression — how can we avoid a reminiscence of that legend of old Athens and the picture of that company of young men and maidens who yearly passed down a street toward the ship which that day would sail for Crete and the Labyrinth? One cannot but hear, in watching these processions to-day, the echo of all sacrificial outcries.

For you and I and even the most complacent spectator must know — if we know anything at all worth knowing — that only in rare instances has the magic formula been whispered and the thread attached by which these children can ever hope to find their way back to those undiluted aspirations, impulses and powers which are theirs now.

And unless these are preserved, what hope is there in a rapidly crowding world ?

The most wonderful potentialities leak away into the desert, and a competitive society, filled with all the illusions of size and quantity, and submerged in violent action, eats up the hearts and souls of youth.

Walking about this tumultuous city, we must see everywhere the murderous work of the minotaur, and so many of these lost children, who ‘graduated’ a little while ago, in white, with flowers and with music, and with ‘appropriate remarks,’ but with no thread!


It was on the corner of two typical West Side streets that, one dreary evening, — which, however, could do nothing to make that place look drearier than it always does, — I saw a very vivid and impressive moving picture.

A trolley-car crowded to indecency came up Halsted Street, inflicting its abrasive and violent noise on all sides, like a spray of vitriol. It not only was crowded — it bulged hideously from the back platform, with a swarm that clung to the handles on both sides with solid rows of rigid hands.

Even the motorman, whose appetite for more passengers is one of the excruciating phenomena of Chicago, realized that there was not a foot hold or a handhold left. So he passed the crossing without stopping.

At that moment, a very vigorous and swarthy youth arrived at the corner, and, in spite of the fact that there would be another car in two minutes, decided, simply because he was a sample of young Chicago, to take the bulging car — to attach himself to the ugly swarm whirling along in the dust.

He got his thick legs going, and hurled himself after the car. He was close enough now to reach for a spot among all the hands on the rail. If he could get a hand-grip, he could take a chance of finding a hole for one foot. Then, suddenly and startlingly, he completely disappeared. He seemed to dive head-foremost into the earth. He had overlooked a large excavation in the street for the repair of pipes. This youth’s highly scented manuscript seemed closed — the place that knew him would know him no more forever.

Symbolically he was dead and buried. And what I next saw was his appearance in the other world — whatever world is waiting for headlong Chicagoans. Up he came out of his grave, covered with mud and with chagrin, and, shamefacedly brushing at his clothes, disappeared into final oblivion.

This is the parable of the determined young men and the already overcrowded city. Wait for something less crowded, or, better, walk in quiet places and avoid us.


Yesterday I went into a bank, and to-day must tell how, even in banks, something new and strange may suddenly illuminate their heavy features.

The bank building is made as impressive as the circumstances of the bank will allow. Ancient stability is the ideal. But, in any case, it has been built in a great hurry, by very busy architects and contractors, who conspired to make out of it something that was a mere advertisement, a gesture of power and an expression of profound respectability.

The gentlemen who sit at mahogany desks, attended by little stenographers in flimsy rags and slippers, are gentlemen who love to look out over the economic landscape, and watch the sun and shadow of prosperity and depression succeed each other as the clouds pass over; who find business talk the only real talk with meat on its bones; whose pleasures are found in the approved channels of the club lunchtable and the golf course.

The bank is filled with young men and women keeping the records, behind glass partitions and wire-nettings.

I can see them there, — so many charming young women, — vessels made by the great potter for generous purposes, their finely articulated and resilient hands flying over the adding machines, as they sit on stools hour after hour, day after day, year after year, in the bank.

And the young men with strong, straight bodies, with splendid foreheads and eyes, and all that suppressed force and alertness of the athletic male, who, with a little pen, make little entries here and there, which add to the eternal records of trivial transactions.

How is it, you think, that these boys and girls, in the flush of a priceless youth, with one life to lead, in a world filled with beauty and adventure and romance, will stew here in this depleting experience, like so many clams in a pot, until they open, and that savory liquor of their youth runs out, to be served to the gods of business, of finance, and of industry?

That it is an offense to God and to nature cannot be denied.

No wonder you feel impelled to say to these young girls: ‘Dear young girls, do you appreciate what your endowments are, and how many generations have gone to the making of you; and won’t you develop one or two talents that will, in some degree, repay that generous nature which has made you so graceful and so perfect? Won’t you apply your hearts to something that synchronizes with this bodily perfection and dexterity which you possess, and love the open earth, and poetry, and music, so that, though your bodies may be bound here, your spirits may have some of the exaltation of freedom— “ride upon the winds, run on the top of the disheveled tide, and dance upon the mountains like a flame”?'

And if you were talking to those men, you might perhaps stir some emotion by telling the story of Shackleton, or of any men who stand out under the windy sky and in all weathers, on sea or on land, and get the experience of being adequately employed in tasks befitting youth.

The flying ploughshares of the wild geese sweep north! The Red Gods make their medicine again! While there is time, and if you would save your immortal souls — Allons! ‘Out of the dark confinement — after the Great Companions and to belong to them — sailors of many a ship — walkers of many a mile of land.’

But, unless there is a war, the girls and boys stay in the bank. Either they have rigorous domestic responsibilities already, or they await alike the inevitable hour when mat rimony seizes them, and binds them with silk bands, and spins them up in her net as the spider does the buzzing flies.

It was into one of these spacious temples of industry that I walked yesterday; and on a white marble bench, at one end of the long hall, sat an Italian peasant-woman, or a Greek, with a red shawl over her head, her hands folded in the lap of her black skirt. Immediately that proud bank collapsed. In the presence of a piece of real beauty, it melted into a mere lump, into something that was fit only to make a pedestal, for the time being, for this solitary figure.

There she sat in her unconscious grace, indeed, in a grandeur which made a mere toy of that building. She put it to complete shame. She was real, and all that imitation marble and stupid bronze, that rushing about of clerks and wise consultation of officers, was unreal. She was eternal; they were ephemeral. She was music, and there seemed to be a certain sound of trumpets and a chanting of voices, and that bank was the scene of a strange and fleeting ceremony.

The woman sat there, totally disregarded, of course, and yet around that figure was the whole genealogy of beauty, — the beauty of earth, not the beauty of banks, — and a multitude of the heavenly host.


The aisles of the department store were almost a gelatinous mass of people— any cracks between stuffed with children, who could see nothing except the ugly overcoats, trousers, dresses, shabby shoes and muddy overshoes of the swarm.

They poured in and out of elevators and up and down stairs, and edged along counters, and their multitudinous eyes wandered, wandered, wandered, over all the piles and rows of articles for sale.

Here is a building packed with every kind of merchandise; and through the passages left for the purpose pours a stream of humanity which, by contact, absorbs these goods; while their money is drawn in a steady stream out of their pockets — sucked out by the attraction of mass, which these stores use to such huge advantage.

For when things appear in such lavish and prodigal quantities, the instinct of prodigality is suggested by a perfectly scientific pathology, the suction on the pocket book starts, and the stream trickles or spouts toward the cashier through the pneumatic cashcarrier.

The children were there in the toy department, because it was Christmas week; but they saw things only when they happened to arrive next to a showcase or a pile of stuff on the floor. Then they dragged back and blockaded and shouted and pointed and picked up and handled, and voraciously coveted — if they were not too hopelessly tired and surfeited, and merely dead weights hanging to their parents’ hands.

The store help were feverish and pale, and somewhat worn by these days before Christmas, which constitute for them an acute form of slavery added to the normal degree of slavery which they usually enjoy.

Early, in the cold December wind, — rank and wet off that morose Lake Michigan, — they hurry along the slushy streets of the West Side or South Side or North Side, emerging from little flats, or duplicate houses in long rows, and board the reeking trolley-cars.

And after a day of weary and exasperating work behind the counters, they return in a solid jam at night. Little girls, many of them, with exactly the same capacity for joyful freedom as your little daughter at home; perhaps more, because freedom would be so new and so precious a gift; but who has freedom?

At any rate, the department-store ‘wrapper girl’ is confined in a most cruel and harmful way, considering her years. I was regarding one of these little girls rather intently as she stood in her stall. She was thin and nervous, and yet altogether at home and at ease in the rush of affairs. Her hands went through the motions mechanically, and her eyes wandered like the eyes of the people, like the department-store eyes.

But this girl was a rare thing. She struck me forcibly as a phenomenon: she corresponded to the brilliant poppies which Nansen found growing at the foot of a crag in Franz Josef Land, amid a continent of ice and snow and eternal devastation.

Her eyes were gold, bronze gold; her hair iridescent copper, alive and abundant ; her small face keen and sensitive; her hands and figure electric and free with the grace of a little fox — a little red fox of the dark Maine forests, sitting for a moment in a splash of sunlight and sniffing up the wind among the green shadows of the pointed firs; and all the air still and aromatic.

Sweet as Eden is the air,
And Eden-sweet the ray;
No paradise is closed for them,
Who foot by branching root and stem,
And lightly with the woodland share
The change of night and day.

When you are in one of these stores again just before Christmas, keep those words in mind. You will the more clearly understand the way these modern inventions have closed upon the native liberties of youth.

And while the little-red-fox girl glowed before me, a strange thing took place. A cardinal bird flung out his strong, beckoning, challenging calls — a cardinal bird! A symbol of daring, impossible, jubilant freedom, with a scarlet song. A song piercing, vivid; a song of trees and winds and flashing brooks and high hillsides and rocky pastures and alder thickets, ‘from New England westward to Oregon and south to the Gulf,’ as the bird books say — not knowing that those words constitute an epic poem.

This song pierced the stale atmosphere like flaming arrows, and illuminated all its ugliness and its tragedy. It came again, and several times, from a little wooden cage somewhere in the neighboring ‘bird department.’

The thing to do, I thought, is to let these two wild creatures out of their cages. I could n’t reach them through the bars of my own cage. Nobody reaches them, and they remain in captivity till they are dead.