On Social Work and Kangaroos
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
DURING the winter you hear vague hints about it; in early spring the murmurs become insistent; by midsummer there is no escape. The Joan of Arc Club, the Pollyannas, and the little Liberties must go to Bronx Park Zoo! They make intricate plans whereby each individual may see the animal dearest to its imagination, and the day is set — a selection involving, in our polyglot neighborhood, the Mosaic Law, the Papal Bull, and the Lutheran doctrine. We are going to Bronx Park Zoo!
You mention it casually at dinner. You note the incredulous expressions and the ominous silence of the older, more seasoned workers, but you pay little heed. All winter you have been inwardly scornful of their lack of enthusiasm for instructive recreational work.
And yet — when the chosen day dawns clear and warm you are aware of a shameful hope dying. But at 3.25, when you look from the office window on to an empty playground, a new one springs up in your heart. At 3.30 you glance out again. The playground swarms. It resounds with cries of ‘Teacher, we’re ready! We’re ready, Teacher!’ They are shiny as to face, a bit ragged as to some clothes and a bit dressy as to others — net and lace confirmation-dresses rubbing against dirty ginghams, unadorned heads bobbing about next to hats of Sicilian lace, trimmed with tenement-made flowers. They carry bottles of water, lemons, and pink paper bags from Rose Sternhill’s mother’s store. ‘It’s so sick we get on the subway train, Teacher!’ ‘We got some for you, Teacher!’ You hear a titter behind you and turn to glare at your fellow workers in a group at the door, but you start off with a wildly beating heart.
‘My mother says it six o’clock I mus’ be home, Teacher!’ ‘Gertrude Krumpea’s gotta take her little brother, Teacher! Oh, Teacher, Gertrude’s gotta take—’ You look at Gertrude, smiling sturdily up at you, and decide that her Teutonic efficiency can handle that fat little four-year-old clinging to her skirt.
You begin to count them. Everybody begins. You think there are twenty-three. Only twenty-three! Gertrude says there are twenty-four, without even glancing up from her little brother’s nose she is then attending. Gertrude is right. You shoo them toward the car-line.
You accept tolerantly the sally of the young and facetious conductor of the trolley and assure him that they are all yours. You begin to seat them. Then, as you drop wearily into the space Margaret Maggochi and Mary Fiorito have been fighting to preserve for you, the conductor yells maliciously, ‘This way out! This way! Here, you! Let ‘em off! Let ‘em off!' You raise your voice above his to tell Ida Mongolies and Gussie Turgel that they cannot go out by the window, and with the aid of the facetious young conductor you get ‘em off.
Hurrying before the wheels of two impatient trucks, you assure Rose Koleck that indeed he was a nice man, grab Gussie from the jaws of death of the on-going trolley, give Margaret her two pennies to squander on gum at the subway entrance, and drive them down the steps, refusing one stick of gum.
They scream at the darkness below and rush back. Gertrude asks whether this is like Hell. You assure her that it is, and count out twenty-three nickels from the store in your pocket. They put hands over ears as a train approaches, and again rush at you. You scream silently that the train will not hurt them if they let it alone, and pull Teresa Astarita — and Gussie — back from the edge. You count them again. There are thirty-one. You beg them to stand still one minute, just one minute!
When they are seated in two long neat rows in the car, awed into wideeyed quietness, you are glad. Glad that for once the collective blankness of the subway faces has been broken, wrinkled into separate expressions of surprise, sympathy, consternation. The old gentleman on your right asks with keen interest about the lemons and the water bottles. Anna Romano has begun on her lemon, greedily. You begin to believe, oh, to believe absolutely, in the dark tales she has told of the time she went on the subway before — ' So sick I was my mother thought I would die on her! ‘ Her skin is a greenish white. You glance hastily away. Rose Sternhill is beginning on hers, and the same threatening pallor is spreading beneath her dark eyes.
Ida Mongolies punches Gussie Turgel in the side, or so Gussie says. There is violent discord and endless ethical discussion. You try to arbitrate, and understand in a flash why nothing can be accomplished at Geneva. The owners of the disturbed expressions begin to get off, station after station, and you become less self-conscious about the hue of complexions. What happens now will be a family affair. The subway becomes an ‘El’ just there and you smile benignly at the unified shout of delight, as though it were a surprise you had had especially prepared.
You drag Gussie from her conversation with the guard, who looked like the candy-man on her corner, and marshal them through the gate of Bronx Park.
You beg them not to waste all their excitement on the bison. You lead the way to Bearland. You try, agilely, to be at every cage in response to every query. You look frantically at the placards and, feeling infinitely wise, introduce each slouching beast by name, age, and habitat; and, on further inquiry, you explain where he sleeps, when he sleeps, what he eats and when. What he likes to eat? Oh, what he gets! While that novel idea is being absorbed you take them to the indoor mammals.
With shrieks of joy they discover revolving doors. They play merry-goround. They want to play tag with the tigers. They mimic the monkeys until the monkeys drop despondently from their swings and eye them with an increasing interest. You continue to be zoölogically intelligent, question-proof, until Anna Romano, in her even, monotonous voice, pointing to the girth of the hippopotamus, asks, ‘Teacher, what’s in his belly? ‘ Colombo Polombo saves you by announcing firmly that she must see a kangaroo. She studied about one in her geography and, though she does n’t believe there is such a thing, there was a ’picture of it. You assure her that there are kangaroos and that in due time she shall see one, and then you suggest fresh air.
Outside on a bench you refuse hunks of Italian bread and lollipops and little almond cakes — they’ve been in Rose Sternhill’s mother’s store for weeks awaiting this day. Colombo again mentions kangaroos. You reassure her and lot Gussie and America Fuligini go for water. Water! Everybody goes for water. ‘Ain’t a bit o’ fun in Central Park,’ pipes Tessie D’Est, the traveled; ‘can’t get a drink there a-tall.’
Colombo Polombo must see a kangaroo. There is nothing more important than that. You search a guard. He waves vaguely toward the west. You grasp Colombo by one hand and order the other twenty-two to follow. Gertrude leads them, smiling, her fat little brother asleep in her arms.
But between Colombo and her heart’s desire are gray foxes, and peacocks, and swans, and the parrot house, and reptiles! You look at your watch. Five forty-five! You pull them away from the crocodiles and make them skip, in spite of Teresa’s blistered heel and Angelina’s hurt toe. You see a giraffe and a zebra. You call Colombo’s attention to them particularly. But Colombo’s hopeful expression is drowned in tears. You say, ‘Colombo, I’m terribly sorry’ — and you look steadily away. Your hand is dropped.
The returning train is empty, and a song of thanksgiving rises in your heart. You refuse to scoop any of the chocolate out of Gussie’s palm and relax in the joy of achievement. ‘Look at Anna, Teacher, oh, look at Anna! She’s sick on you!’ You look. Her head flops, and she is green. You hasten with her to the vestibule. You hold her head, but you speak heartlessly: ‘Anna, stand up now and behave yourself!’ There is a tug at your skirt. Rose Sternhill is there, and Carmela Gillio, empty bottles and lemon skins in their lax hands. You resort to threats: ‘If you children get sick, I shall never take you out again!’ They raise weak eyes to your granite-like face. . . .
In the wee small hours around eight o’clock you drag yourself up many winding tenement stairs, returning each child by hand to each bowing and smiling mother, and wonder not at their gratitude. Wearily you take yourself to the House, where cool, wellgroomed, and smiling fellow workers inquire pleasantly into your afternoon.
In the dark hour of three you awake. Somebody has spoken in a hauntingly unsatisfied voice about seeing a kangaroo, and when you doze again a frieze of kangaroos goes loping round about your tired head.