Driftwood: A Study in Odd Jobs

THERE are good and bad burglars (speaking from the burglar’s point of view), just as there are good and bad poets, and good and bad lawyers. There is the competent burglar, who loves his work, and there is the incompetent burglar, who is simply holding down a job.

Eugene A. Brown belonged to the second class. Although he had committed several burglaries, he was not a born burglar. He had simply drifted into them as he had drifted into all his experiences, and with the same lack of success. After spending a few months at Blackwell’s Island as the result of the failure of one, he was more than ready to drift into something else. It was in this open frame of mind that we made his acquaintance.

He walked into the Settlement one day with a letter of introduction from an employer who had lately dispensed with his services — not because he had been a burglar (the employer was a broad-minded man), but because, apparently, he could be nothing else. The letter called attention to these two outstanding facts and suggested that we find suitable employment for him.

I read the letter and glanced at Eugene. He was twenty years old or thereabouts, tall and lank, with rather a small head topping his thin length, light hair, blue eyes, large hands, a bad complexion.

He sat down and began to talk in a drawl — a complacent drawl, without color, without feeling.

‘I want a job. I ‘ve got to get to work.’

‘What kind of work can you do?’ I asked.

‘I can do any kind of work. I’ve had experience in all kinds of work. I can do office-work, I can be a wagon helper, I can do laundry work — ‘ He went on with a list of accomplishments so long and so varied that it was bewildering to listen to them.

‘How many jobs have you had ?'


‘How old are you?’


‘It is n’t possible,’ I said. ‘You have n’t lived long enough to have had sixty-five jobs.’

He stuck to his guns obstinately.

‘Can you tell me all the places you ‘ve worked and the names of your employers? ‘

‘Yes ma’am.’

‘Go ahead.’

He started and I took the time and trouble to list them all; for even in my, as I thought, rather wide acquaintance among job-losers, he so far outdistanced all the others that he had me barking up the wrong tree.

It was no trouble to him to tell them. In fact I soon discovered that so long as the recital was about himself Eugene’s talk never ceased voluntarily. It made no difference whether the facts were to his credit or to his discredit. That whatever he had done could not have been done better was so strong a conviction with him that it kept him strictly truthful.

Lying implies a degree of self-criticism to which Eugene was a complete stranger.

He gave a careful and accurate list of sixty-five names and addresses, and a minute description of the exact nature of the work required in each. It was necessary to cut short much interesting matter. Suffice it to say that in the end he had thoroughly convinced me that he had indeed been the possessor of sixty-five jobs.

‘You seem to be able to get jobs. Why don’t you keep them?’

Followed another long recital. About half he had left, about half had left him. Without much effort they had come (undesirable jobs they had been, where vacancies are common and applicants scarce), and when effort had been required to hold them, they had as easily slipped away.

‘Driftwood,’ I thought as I looked at him. ‘Can it be put to any use?’

His talk flowed on like a running brook.

‘You know I’ve been on Blackwell’s Island? ‘

‘Yes. What was that for?’

‘Unlawful entry.’ He seemed to enjoy the phrase: it sounded dignified and important. He had been committing a burglary alone, he had got caught, he had been sent to Blackwell’s Island.

And on this subject he spoke with the nearest approach to feeling that he ever exhibited. For nothing whatever on Blackwell’s Island met with the approval of Eugene A. Brown. The crowning insult came when he had been made grave-digger. That had headed him toward reform.

We started him in with a mental test with which he was greatly pleased. To be asked innumerable questions and to have his answers recorded word for word approximated his idea of proper appreciation. To the disgrace of our mental measuring-rod be it said that he tested normal.

We saw Eugene fairly often for a while. In the end he proved too much for us. He had four charitable societies working for him, none to his satisfaction. One of us found him a job. It was not to his taste and he was soon out of work again.

‘He’s just a tramp,’ was the verdict of his particular good angel. ‘Let him find a job for himself.’

In view of the fact that he had already found sixty-five for himself, this did not seem unduly harsh. Indeed, as someone facetiously remarked, the job for which he seemed made was manager of an employment agency.

At last he solved his own problem, however.

We did not see him for a long time. But one day he dropped in unexpectedly, looking as cheerful as his principles allow. The world is always on trial with Eugene. He does not permit any momentary piece of good luck to put him off his guard.

‘I’ve got a job now—had it for quite a while.’ The same imperturbable drawl.

‘What is it?’

‘I’m a night watchman in Hell’s Kitchen.’

It sounded staggering but, I remembered, Eugene had told me in the beginning that he could do anything.

‘Is it a good job?’

‘It pays pretty good. I get eighteen dollars a week. I would have got fifteen, but the last man that had the job got murdered, and they had hard work filling the place, so they raised the salary.’

This was evidently a matter for congratulation.

‘What do you do?’

‘I have to walk along Ninth Avenue from Thirty-ninth to Fifty-ninth Street, up and back once during the night, and watch the stores.’

‘Is it dangerous?’

‘Unless you understand the job, it is. You don’t want to be attracting too much attention.’

‘Have you had any trouble?’

‘One night something happened. I was going along Ninth Avenue and I saw the door of a store open. It did n’t look right to me, so I went in. I walked into a room with a curtain between it and another room. I did n’t like to go behind that curtain alone, so I went out to get a policeman. I did n’t see none around, so I went to one of them police boxes and rang it. I waited for about two hours and then a policeman came up in a taxicab. When I explained to him what was the matter, he said he’d have me arrested. He said it was n’t no emergency and them boxes is for emergencies only. He was worked up because he’d got caught off his beat. When he got through talking, we went into the store and behind the curtain.

‘There was a man in there sound asleep in bed. We woke him up and asked him what he was doing there. He said he was the proprietor and belonged there. But it did n’t look right to me to go to sleep in Hell’s Kitchen with the door open. So we made him get up and dress and go to the police court. He was terrible mad. The judge decided he was the proprietor and had n’t ought to have been woke up. But it did n’t look right to me.’

‘If you should see burglars entering a store, what would you do ?’

‘I would n’t do nothing. They pay me for watching their stores, not for losing my life.'

‘Would n’t you whistle for the police? ‘

He pitied my inexperience, but he was patient.

‘They’d see me if I did that. I’d tell a policeman if I saw one. But there ain’t much use looking for a policeman round there. They ‘re very seldom seen.’

Here followed a little digression upon the habits of the policemen of Hell’s Kitchen.

‘They’re mostly off their beat, and when they’re on their beat, they’re drunk. When they’re drunk, they’re liable to arrest anybody just for fun. They’re up to all kinds of tricks. One took off my watchman’s badge the other night. It was n’t any use to argue with him, ‘cause he was awful drunk. I had to follow him around for about four hours, in stores and out of stores and everywhere he went, before he’d give it back. In one store he threatened to shoot the proprietor because he would n’t give him a drink. He asked my advice, and if I had n’t advised him not to, I suppose he’d have done it. When he got tired of me following him, he gave me back my badge.’

He returned to the subject in hand.

‘I’m the best, watchman they’ve ever had; I know how to handle burglars. You must do it easy, don’t go stirring them up. This ain’t no job for a hero. He’d only lose his life and the firm ‘d lose an employee and the place is hard to fill. I’d tell a policeman providing I saw one. That’s the best anyone could do. If I don’t see no policeman, whose fault is it if the place gets robbed?’

I felt that he had sized up the situation to a nicety. He was evidently the round peg in the round hole. It was odd to reflect, however, that of all his sixty-six jobs (counting burglary as the sixty-sixth), it was the one least to his credit which had qualified him for the best position he had ever held.

He got up to go. ‘I can’t stay any longer. I came in this morning because I had to go to the horspital. I got a cold last week. A man in a drug store gave me some medicine free. I’ve took it all. I thought maybe at the horspital they’d give me some more.’

He went off to the hospital to keep himself fit for his job.

So Eugene had found a niche. Of course there should be no such niche. No man should pay Eugene to guard his valuables — and no man will for long.

No, Eugene, this job will not last much longer than the others. You have no place in the sphere of usefulness. Flotsam of life, caught a minute, now here, now there, drifting at last to the open sea.