Mr. Lever

Am I a sea, or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me? — BOOK OF JOB


I AM any one of these dumb guys slamming out of factory doors at quitting time. I am the common sort. You might stop me to ask for a match. You might not. If I have n’t shaved for a couple of days and my hair is tousled, you won’t, because I’m tough-looking — shoulders like the hind end of a ten-ton truck, arms long and hairy. I look as if I could beat up a dozen like you in less time than you could run the block. I look as if I might, too. I am the type you know all about, the class definition, one of these dumb Bohunks who get drunk every so often and raise hell. Just animal. So you may define me. I am not the individual; I am the generalization. Without knowing me, you know my life.

Aye, and I am as dumb as any bolt or clutch on this machine I run, dumping fondant into little impressions in starch, making candy for you to eat. I am in the world to work, a lever all by myself, for someone to push and shove this way and that; an intelligent lever that walks up to the job in the morning; a versatile mechanism that pushes another lever in the time clock, saying, ‘How d’ye do, mister. All set to work, work the skin off’n me for the pennies I’ll get.’ And the well-behaved levers of my legs and belly and back carry me upstairs, and my arms divest me of my clothing and dress me in a uniform like the other levers who came to work with me.

I take a drink of water, for it’s going to be a hot day and the starch I handle is dry. Ah, you see, I’m like any other piece of machinery that needs a bit of attention to run properly, at maximum efficiency; but I oil and fuel myself. It is the brain part of me, the top part of my spinal column, that has me do this. Can’t afford to let myself feel weak or get sick, because I can’t afford to go on the junk pile. Wife and kid, myself — our world is bound by the circumference of the dollars I earn. This machine’s got to care for himself, and those he loves. No dollars, no life — doubtful existence.

Oh, I know I’m nothing but a lump of wood and carborundum with putty to pad me out, to give me the specified weight for my height. I have no feelings — a robot who can with ten fingers and suitable manipulation of arm and shoulder and head interpret commands. Words are felicitous levers prying this way and that in my brain, releasing the proper cog and pinion at the proper instant; every cog and pinion related to me as a whole, so that by the suitable manipulation of arm and shoulder and head I am judged to have obeyed the command, the words. It’s adroit, sly as the devil. And they — they, the Controllers, the Bosses — can hire a subtle machine like me for a few dollars a week, enough to buy me oil and grease and new parts and put a roof over my head, so I can always be in good condition for work.

The relationship between the Controllers and me is cunning. I lie awake nights just thinking, pondering over the ingeniousness of it. Sometimes it sets me giggling like a madman up at the ceiling — hee, hee! — till Maria begs me to be quiet. Sometimes I get mad — mad as hell. The Bosses do not own me in the sense the slaves used to be owned. They have no direct responsibility for feeding me, housing me, clothing me, watching my health. That’s up to me, because I am credited with sufficient intelligence and desire for personal liberty to tend to myself. If I get overheated working and the air is bad, that’s my business. If I am continually bothered by the heat and bad air so that my efficiency ratio as a machine is lowered — why, I ’m scrapped. Mr. So-and-So will take my place. Mr. So-and-So, who has let himself out for hire, willing to give his life to the machine — provided, of course, he is competent. I? I can go curl up like a sick dog. I could n’t stand the gaff. And the Bosses are sorry for me — sorry, but not intensely concerned, because they never owned me. I was never a high-priced roadster whose bumpers and nickel had to be polished every day; I was n’t any property to be proud of. I am a perfectly common machine, man. Thousands of me born every minute.

Oh, do not misunderstand. The Bosses are kind to me. They prepare lectures for me on unselfishness and devotion and the sweet optimistic outlook on life, for God loves little gentlemen. And then I am obliged to function only a certain number of hours a day; and I get a half-hour nooning when I may eat if I so desire; and they do not hinder my passing down the stairs in the late afternoon, marching to the ticking clock with the other levers, and punching the card which is my life, my world. And the Bosses do not stop my going out the door and down the sidewalk.

What matters the brightness of an afternoon sun, the slight stir of air down the street, how blue the sky may seem, with what grace a pigeon glides down to the pavement? This body judges the heat and humidity and wonders about sleeping to-night, for a certain rest is requisite to it; and if a breeze does not come in off the lake or rain fall it may be as hot as last night — and last night was hell, no fooling. I sweated till the sheet was wringing wet and the mattress soaked. And the heat coagulating the night so it got blacker! Sleep? Ho, ho! . . . And the baby crying. That is a hard thing to hear. Occasionally a sugar teat will quiet him or a soothing song of words, and he will forget his rash or colic — go to sleep smiling, maybe. You’ve got to train the young machines early to be good sports, existing without a whine or squall till the morphia quality of words in later life plunges them into permanent narcosis. I think of this, and think of the wife at home standing over a hot iron in our little kitchen. There’s a good machine, never complaining, working faultlessly — a smart lever like me, living merely for being a lever.

But I, as I go walking down the street, am not supposed to be thinking these things. I am the Bohunk, the Wop — the Type. I give a nickel to the kid in the middle of the block for a newspaper and take the three cents he offers me, since pennies are essential to my welfare and my wife’s and baby’s. I smile at the kid and he smiles back. We do not know why we do this and we do not concern ourselves with the reason. We unreasonably smile, telling each other good-night with the smile, each hoping the other is all right, in good health, generally O. K. And I go down the street reading that the Cubs beat the Cardinals, in a game where little toys ran all about a great field with other toys chasing, and thousands of levers yelling for them. Huh, that must have been a good game! And I read that Hoover has held out a moratorium on war debts. He’s a big lever. He’s gold where I’m pig iron, and ruby and topaz where I am bone, and the fluids in his body are n’t my fluids. Yet he’s a lever just as I am; he’s got part of the world pushing him around. I, thank God, I’m me.

I’m just a money earner. No creative artist, not worthy to brush a thread off the robe of a Leonardo da Vinci, even to carry slops for Villon. Einstein is to me a name, like Newton. ‘Why’ and ‘how’ are parts of speech — casual prefaces to a polite question mark. I understand nothing. I like music — Beethoven, Wagner, Liszt, Verdi, Puccini, any music; if I had more money, I would hear it more often. The radio helps some. I like paintings. I like the exotic Delacroix. Those lions of his! And quiet Corot and misty Monet — anything pretty. I know I’m not supposed to be like this — I, a machine. I ’m just a money earner with a wife. I’m not all dried wood, you see — still a little sap left in me. I have n’t bought or read a book on sex yet, so I may not be leading the love life a machine should; but I get along.

As a lump of wood, a quaint articulate timber, I like to sing a love song to Maria, a sweet Italian love song, —

Ah! Maria, Marì!
Quanta suonno . . . perdo pe te!
. . . Oj Marì!

while I hold Joseph in my arms and feel his softness, the tiny muscles in his arms and even in his back, his small white back. I sit here holding him. You see, I’ve begot and am fashioning another lever in my own image for someone to be pushing around — the pertinent lever, the apt machine. Homo automatus, — not human, not even Christian, — the Machine. This flesh his? These muscles? Eyes, ears, nose, mouth? These his? Ho, ho! I had better drown him like a little kitten.

Words will rule him, magnificent imperial words — that click and clack of tongue and vibration of larynx, vocabulary of the two-legged automaton, man. Man and his loquacious money, forever talking. Justice, law, decency, good, evil, right, wrong, selfish, generous, short, long. Words! Words? Oh, no. Me, I’m not to be believing this and you are n’t either — we’re told it’s not true. Books say it, and preachers crying out the divinity and intelligence of man from milliondollar pulpits say it. God sits on high. Evolution’s a lie. Truth, divine. Divinity, truth. Books and preachers. But books use words and preachers use books — books and copper pennies. And churches do install lightning rods. Preachers, pennies, churches, lightning rods — machines . . . levers manipulating other levers and being manipulated. Oh, the system is complex, never static. When on earth will equilibrium be reached? Never on earth. Cunning as the devil, the system. No man, born of woman, may understand or appreciate its intricacy. Man sits on his haunches and whimpers like a scared baby jackal to the white moon.


I stand up in the street car all the way home. A jangling bell has counted me. Merely one single clang, decisive, emphatic. Bing! That’s me, going home from work. I do not mind standing up because I’m used to it, my body balanced to the jerking sway of the floor, one arm always alert at the strap. I do not mind. I read the newspaper even as I stand. I have become that clever. A giraffe could not do it; a steer could not do it; a dahlia could n’t. They have n’t the mechanisms for it. I am a man; only I can do it. A gorilla or a chimpanzee might be taught to stand and hold the paper, but its eyes would never rove hither and yon over the printed page as intelligently as mine, hunting for the gang story and all about the excessive heat wave with people dying from it — poor people, poor puny men-folk.

Where should I be in the jungle with my frail fingers and baby lungs and soft cry? I could n’t live there. Every creature on earth is adapted for his own peculiar phase of existence, none other. We’ve all got our slots in life to fill, and fill them we must, — I, you, — moving along our individual rut that began as a wide road and now gradually, imperceptibly, sinks and narrows till the canyon of convention and ethic engulfs us; from the rut of life doddering into the completer rut of a worm’s alimentary canal. Because you there would like a Handel oratorio and a Comus, and I prefer a street song and a limerick, and the monkey peels his banana — you are no more fit to breathe this air than I am, or the monkey.

If you use the finer qualities that make you fancy the oratorio or Comus so that you create, adding something to the world’s art, produce, knowledge — why, then you are better than I am, or the monkey. But why, then, would you credit yourself? ‘Let no man deceive himself. If any man thinketh that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise.’ You did not fashion your genius; you had nothing to do with it; you are as insensible as the lilac that is purple in the spring, as much a victim to every wind that blows and the sun that shines. You are a mechanism, yet a subtler instrument than the average man. The very fineness of your machinery may be your undoing.

Me? You? Just levers that have adjusted ourselves to the influence of other machines, other men and phenomena. Emotions? Machinery to turn other machinery. Thoughts? The same. Muscles, bone, flesh, blood, lymph — every integral, discrete anatomy? The same. The whole of us a machine ready to actuate other machines and be acted upon.


The sun is very low as I near home — low in the twilight sky. Man with his sly fingers might never weave a lace or tapestry to match this sky, these flocculent clouds, this commingling of mist and shadow, though a legion trolls helped him. Man might not even tell of it, for he could use only words. . . . Indefinable color, indefinable shadow; foam and lace and filigree — violet and orange and red of flame. The darkening buildings. In the east a penumbra beginning. The trundle of a cart dowm the cobblestones, the crackle of a motor, the shouting of children at play, the clear call of a boy or girl or giddy laughter. All these reach my heart at a time like this; sometimes it’s like hearing a sweet simple song, a nostalgic melody — like a handclasp from a friend. A world of sweetness, a world of melancholy. I forget the heat.

And these thoughts, these emotions, a gesture of machinery? Nothing but coruscations, emanations, diminutive sparks and tonguing fires, obscure rumorous sounds in the mechanical whirl of my skull? As Melville said, a philosopher has something wrong with his digester. Certainly he, the philosopher, is not a good mechanism, not a logical one. What lever am I that I should be bothered this way? It merely makes me sorry for existence, and this is unreasonable. I exist. I must continue to exist until some command other than my own bids me cease. My particular machinery is sparking, smoking too much; has to be stopped. All I must do, — it’s so simple,—I must never interfere with the copper pennies, the tiny gnomes muscling in on the old gods. Every time the copper coins jingle I’ve got to stand ready. I am the complicate slot machine called man.

I do not mean to be ironic, bitter. I do not mean to complain. I do not want to whine. If my voice be too querulous, forgive me my weakness. I am fulfilling my existence — perhaps not strapped to the ever-circling Wheel of Life by immutable Karma, yet certainly to the Nitrogen Cycle by law I may as well call Karma or Kismet or what I will. I am merely good for living. Oh, do not deny.

To-night as I sit here at home, in my tiny hot front room, I know the moon is shining. I know the clouds are sailing. I know that somewhere there are the wide lake and the waves lapping, and the catalpa and oak and elm in the parks, and the smooth grass. I know that down town the skyscrapers are a poetry, the great beacon whirling overhead and the fountain throwing colored water, the iron fishes gleaming. People laughing, lights shining. The huge globe rotates, a circuit unending. I know that somewhere in this vast huddle of shadow and shadow, in this night-beleaguered city, I am, Maria is, Joseph is. We are here, palpable. We are happy.

Still, somewhere to-night a friend of mine or yours may be taking an overdose of veronal so that his heart will break — desiring death, pallid Proserpine. Somewhere a man dying in an alley or in a hospital or at home — men-folk all, puny men-folk. Innumerable are the graves beneath the stars. And in the stores and factories and offices, coining immortal money, women and men, tired organisms working, worn-out mechanisms and mechanisms wearing out. Keeping their souls in their bodies? Pray God, they have no souls. Electric lights burn and meters tick. Cars race up and down highways and scuttle up alleys. People pleasuring, working. Tired men and tired women. Soulless? Some, thank God.

We are the machines. We are civilization. Never in the world was the like of us. Kubla would have sent Marco Polo a million miles to see us — us, the machines. I have my duty; you have your duty — each one of us a cog, a pinion, a thrust rod. I run the Mogul that casts candy. You, with your tubes and lenses, examine it. You, over there, write up the money accounts in an indexed file. No. 1 . . . No. 2 . . . No. 3—each so much, each this and each that. You, there, teach school. You have your duty, — university, college, high school, kindergarten,— train machines. You, over there, make booze, and you, there, are good at drinking it. You woman, you get married. You man, support her. Beget children. Beget machines.

I go to bed and the clock rings me out again. I eat because I’m a mechanism needing fuel. I run out of the door for my street car because miles away the time clock at the factory says tick, tick — and tick, tick is the voice of copper pennies. And copper pennies are my life.

Me, a little lever all by myself — one damned clever hunk of machinery. Never was the like of me.