Workless Days

I

HERR TETTEN was out of work. He was unemployed — part of the vague economic problem which occupies the public speakers and newspapers, whose causes are so convincingly explained in multitudes of ways. Tariff walls, says one; American and Jewish money lenders, according to others; the war, reparations, Russia, the high cost of labor, or the high cost of capital. Black printed letters trace interminable ‘ why ’ patterns, and in the streets the beggars writhe against the stones, the cripple offers his matches for ten pfennigs, and the ragged old woman hugs her precious bag of potatoes, hobbling home from the market. Lean men sing old country songs in the courtyards, and gather up the paper-wrapped pennies flung down by well-fed housewives.

Herr Tetten himself had no theory as to the why of these phenomena. He was no philosopher; causality was for him as meaningless as for Professor Einstein. The events of his world were a purely temporal series. He had lived through the war in the trenches; he had, during the inflation, spent for a pair of shoes the ten thousand marks willed him by his grandmother; he had survived the Hunger. He had to-day a roof over his head, owing to the unbusinesslike character of the painter who had rented him his studio. The painter had given up the studio in order to have the money from its rent for his children. Soon after taking the studio, Herr Tetten became unemployed, and the painter had neither the studio nor its rent. But then he had also no more time for painting; he had become a teacher in a school in order to provide food for his children. No one had money to buy his paintings in these days.

The studio was not heated and its roof leaked, but, in comparison with the comforts of war and the Hunger, Herr Tetten felt himself luxuriously lodged. Several times he earned a few marks, and he gave the painter a part. Twice he shoveled snow from the streets and was paid by the municipality.

He had, so to speak, no trade or profession — unless, as a participant in the war, one should count him a soldier. His father had been a teacher, and was shot down at Verdun. Herr Tetten himself had volunteered at twenty, and at the end of hostilities became a sort of superior office boy in a bank. He learned to add up figures rapidly, and to write on a typewriting machine. Partly as a consequence of having learned to use the typewriter, he began to write poetry. When he became unemployed, and for the first time in his life a possessor of leisure, he grew into the habit of writing verses every day. They were strange verses, with but little literary technique, about things in which most people to-day have no belief or interest — about God, saints, an unseen world. Herr Tetten wrote them only because he wanted to. The occasional odd jobs he found left him with much time free.

II

Hans Caspari, Herr Tetten’s best friend, became a Communist. Somewhat younger than Herr Tetten, he had been longer at school. He finished his school course on a Saturday, and the following Monday morning he was conducted by his father to the bank, where he became a bookkeeper. ‘If I had had only a week’s vacation!’ he used to sigh. ‘But the days in school were after all the happiest of my life. I had no money, but I needed none. Now I have one hundred and seventy marks a month. I am supposed to work eight hours a day, but often I sit until eleven o’clock at night adding up figures, with no extra pay.’

Hans Caspari had always been slightly inclined to sentimentality. He looked for causes, and attached blame to things and persons. If he stumbled over a chair, he hated the chair for being in the way. If he could not find his collar, he blamed his mother, not only for the collar, but for the inconveniences of the whole day which followed from his being late.

The economic crisis gave Hans Caspari a new problem: Whose fault was it that he was out of work?

He continued to live as he had before. His father was still employed, and Hans lived and ate at home, with the difference that he no longer paid his share in the expenses and that there was not always quite enough to eat. Hans was fond of eggs, and eggs cost twenty pfennigs each, a price which his mother was unwilling to pay now that all the expenses of the family came out of the father’s earnings.

When he had eaten a supper of rye bread and tea, with cabbage from the garden, Hans Caspari sometimes thought of the pleasure a hard-boiled egg would have given him. But twenty pfennigs is twenty pfennigs, and he did not have it. ‘Whose fault is it that I cannot have an egg?’ he thought. Tempted at first to blame his mother, he quickly saw that that was superficial. It was the economic crisis — it was his being out of work.

Unable to decide who was to blame, he began to consider in what other ways he was suffering under the crisis. An egg was only an egg after all; his life was not radically changed, only slightly lowered in quality throughout. He no longer had one mark for the movies on Saturday night; he did not have quite enough to eat; and his mother, forgetting the economic crisis, occasionally twitted him about earning no money. But, in sum, he existed before being unemployed, and he continued to exist.

One day he thought, ‘ If I were in love and wanted to marry, it would be impossible.’ He was not in love and did not want to marry, but the fact that he could not gave the supposition importance. He began to think about others. There were doubtless other unemployed who did want to marry.

He stood at the window listening to a singer in the courtyard and wondered if the man were perhaps singing his love yearnings. But no, the man was too pale; only hunger could have given him that hollow look. He was perhaps not ravenously hungry, but long underfed and ailing. A life like his own — not snuffed out, but lowered in quality. The man’s cheeks were the color of the strand of straight yellow hair which fell over his forehead. Hans Caspari felt suddenly that he was hearing a farewell song, the voice of one going under. ‘ It is the twilight of the German people,’ he thought. ‘ We are slowly going under.’

Tears almost came to his eyes. He was surprised; this sensibility was perhaps part of being slightly hungry.

He went into the street. The usual beggar was seated on the sidewalk beyond the door, his trousers rolled up so as to display his authentic wooden legs. Near by, an old woman, respectably dressed, offered matches. Then a blind man with a police dog curled at his feet held out a copy of a radio magazine. An autobus stopped at the corner, and the waiting crowd of well-fed, welldressed men and women pushed and elbowed their way in. A woman in a fur coat and silk stockings was walking ahead of Hans. As he overtook her, he turned to see her slightly too pink cheeks and cruel red mouth.

‘Perhaps Karl Marx was right,’ thought Hans. ‘At least, what is, is wrong.’

He stopped before a jeweler’s shop in the Friedrich-Strasse. Minna Kopf, a school friend, was employed here as saleswoman. He went in. As he was talking with Minna, a client entered and asked for diamond brooches. The young salesman showed half a dozen; the client chose one, and paid for it with twenty thousand marks in bank notes which he took from his pocket.

‘Are you sure the money is real?’ asked Hans Caspari, thinking he had perhaps witnessed one of the ingenious robberies one reads of in the newspapers.

Minna Kopf laughed. ‘That was Herr N—, the director of the D—Bank.’

Hans Caspari did not laugh. The strange gentleman with the long nose was the director of the D—Bank, where he himself had been employed. For this man he had added up figures until midnight without receiving extra pay. Because of him, he, Hans Caspari, was now out of work, jobless, dependent on his father, unable to marry. Had this man not bought the diamond brooch, he could have employed Hans Caspari ten years longer.

Such considerations led Hans to become a Communist. He took part in several parades, two small riots, and used his leisure as a jobless man in reading manifestoes and appeals, in listening to orators as young as himself, in arguing and listening to other theories and arguments. He became, in short, politically occupied, a citizen in the true sense of the word. He found that taking part in a demonstration, even when one is slightly hungry, is far more interesting than adding up the figures of another man’s fortune.

III

Herr Tetten deplored the political development of his friend. ‘Life is life,’ he said. ‘Circumstances no longer oblige you to waste your life in the bank, but you have once more found a way of wasting your time. Why must you always be protesting, changing, altering, adding or subtracting material things? You were worse off in the bank than out of it. Yet it never occurred to you to become a Communist before.’

‘ I am out of work, and I am hungry,’ repeated Hans.

‘Hunger is always relative,’ said Herr Tetten. ‘ Even a bank director may be hungry, though from other than economic causes. Compared with a savage tribe, or a prehistoric people, or a hermit, you are remarkably well fed. Compared with war times, you are well fed. Did hunger prevent Saint Anthony from worshiping God? Is what is better than a normal life for an Eskimo or any primitive man not good enough for you ? You weakling, you pampered, you civilization-emasculated being of to-day! ’

‘I am cold,’ said Hans. ‘I have no winter overcoat. Last spring I gave my overcoat to my brother. It was a poor one and I had worn it two years. I was earning one hundred and seventy marks a month, and I thought that by this winter I should have saved enough money to buy a new one. Then I lost my job. My brother needs the overcoat — I cannot ask to have it back. Is that not a trick of fate?

‘I walk down the street without my overcoat, and I feel different from the others, and not so good. I have no money in my pocket and no warmth on my back.’

Herr Tetten leaned back in his chair. ‘Warmth as well as happiness must come from within,’ he said. ‘Do you consider yourself of so little worth that an overcoat can rob you of your self-respect? Compare your life with that of a fisherman off Iceland, with that of an animal in the forest. Is it so unbearable that you must again give all your time and energy to practical considerations which very probably will in the end make things only worse? You are hysterical. You are worse than jobless — your life is unemployed. That, however, does not worry you.’

‘Is it right that the director has turned me out in order to buy a diamond brooch? If I were rich, I should think of the good I could do. I should use my money; I should spend it in ways that would give work to others.

I should take a taxi instead of going in the street car. Perhaps the chauffeur would be glad to earn a little extra; he could buy something for his wife, for his children if he had any. I should employ a man who was out of work and in need. I should not be buying diamonds.’

‘However, you are not rich, and in spite of that you are occupying yourself with material considerations as seriously as if you had millions. If the director chooses to waste his life accumulating diamonds, need you waste yours for equally futile though different ends ? ’

‘It is not merely for myself,’ said Hans. ‘It is for all the others like me — for society. A deep community feeling is developing among us. From us it will spread to other classes, as in Russia.’

Herr Tetten laughed. ‘You mean that Russia is being Americanized. But are the workers in America any happier or better because they all have bathtubs and automobiles? Money and bathtubs are the twentieth-century model of golden calves. If I had a bathtub I should take it to the mountains and use it as a shelter when it rained.

‘ If men had always been so weak and sybaritic as you and others to-day, thinking only of themselves and their pockets, the human race would be known only through fossil remains. Intelligent beings adapt themselves to new conditions, and live their lives within them; they do not protest and demonstrate and play with words, dreaming of bathtubs and automobiles, forgetting the realities of life, the mystery of our appearance and disappearance in this world.

‘Suppose the bank director is unjust, does it help you in any way to talk and think about it?’

Hans Caspari shook his head. ‘It is all quite different,’ he said. ‘It is simply — quite different. You have a false picture of the world, Tetten. You are old-fashioned and out of date. No one thinks as you do to-day.’

’Is that any reason why I should not? I am perhaps right and the others wrong.’

Hans Caspari repeated: ‘It is all so different, Tetten. You are miles away from the problems of to-day.’

IV

A law was passed that all salaries should be reduced on the first day of February. Hans Caspari’s bitterness increased in geometrical ratio. He figured that the bank director’s diamond brooch would have been equivalent to the salary reduction of his whole personnel for several weeks.

Herr Tetten laughed. ‘Why should you trouble yourself about a salary reduction when you have no salary? You should, on the contrary, be glad that the law cannot affect your salary. The 4 or 5 per cent of this reduction represents for us pure gain — a positive benefit has come to us from the economic crisis.'

Hans Caspari did not conceal his impatience with this lack of seriousness. With a rather curt good-bye, he left his friend. That evening he demonstrated in the Alexander-Platz, with fifty or sixty comrades, and his nose was broken by a policeman’s Indiarubber cudgel.

Herr Tetten sat shivering in his overcoat, before his typewriter, in the unheated studio. He had old woolen gloves on his hands, and a fur cap with earlaps on his head. In spite of this envelope of wool, his nose was red, and there were dark hollows under his eyes. But the blue light in his eyes was as hard and bright as steel, as the words leaped on to the white paper from the slender ends of the typewriter keys. He wrote: —

The wind sticks and stings —
I bite him back;
I give kiss for kiss and blow for blow.
The wind is a summer friend —
Shall I turn from him?
Cold was my forefather’s comrade —
Shall I forget,
Preferring stoves and heat-bearing pipes?
I hug the cold,
I warm the cold with my body’s warmth.
I am friends wdth wind and cold,
I whistle with the wind,
I sing in the cold —
I hammer against the world,
And God is with my hand.

The monotonous sounds of the street filtered occasionally into the silence of the studio. Herr Tetten did not hear the street, or even the nervous clickclack of his own typewriter. The blue light in his eyes came from another order of experience. He saw neither the bare walls of the studio, the festoon of cobwebs in the corner, the iron bed, nor the fireless stove; he looked beyond into another region willed by himself. The click-clack of the typewriter was the rhythm of his ecstasy and the measure of an inner harmony known only to himself.

The Great City beyond the door stirred and groaned as if in a dream. There were the muffled sounds of automobile horns, the clang of a street car, the voice of a newsboy hawking news of a catastrophe. The beggars writhed against the stones, old women offered their matches for ten pfennigs, the children of beggar mothers hid their faces in their mothers’ skirts and whimpered for cold.