Mr. Pennyfeather on Manhattan
BY DONALD MOFFAT
MR. PENNYFEATHER’S opinion of New York is not, I am sorry to say, as fair as one would wish to find in a man of his tolerance and understanding. I accuse him of being prejudiced.
‘Prejudiced!’ he retorts. ‘Of course I am! Professor Kittredge used to tell us that every man ought to nourish one or two hearty prejudices, to stiffen his moral fibre. New York is one of mine. I think it’s a good one.’
But when I try to pin him down to a more explicit analysis of his distaste, I find that he has never really thought it worth while — so far as New York is concerned — to examine his feelings more closely. He honestly dislikes the place itself, the shape and look and feel of it as well as the dirt, the noise, and what he calls its ‘mongrel squalor.’ He considers it a calamity if circumstances force him to pay it a visit, and lets it go at that. He enjoys telling about an elderly friend of his, lately deceased, whose boast it was that never during his lifetime had he left New England except for necessary business trips to New York which he made every month for forty years. ‘The old gentleman maintained an office in the Grand Central,’ Mr. Pennyfeather would conclude with satisfaction, ‘and so could take the first available train back to Boston without ever once setting foot outside the station.’
In my opinion Mr. Pennyfeather is a judicious man with a few odd little quirks of mind and eccentricities of character that give pungency to his personality in the way a squeeze of lemon brings out the flavor of fish. Perhaps that is why I like to draw him out; or perhaps (in the case of his New York prejudice) it is with a view to codifying my own mild animus toward the city of my birth. For, having been born and brought up there (or at least brought part way up there), I know that there are just as many decent people in New York as anywhere else, and, therefore, that the city they live in cannot be as bad as Pennyfeather believes. It is true, one seldom meets the decent inhabitants; but that they still dwell there in respectable numbers, just as they did when I was a boy, I take to be incontestable. Mr. Pennyfeather and I both have friends among them, and find them much as other people, except perhaps for a certain careless opulence in the matter of small bills and taxicabs. I told Mr. Pennyfeather that I’d consider it a favor if he would take the trouble to analyze his feelings about New York, and let me know the result in due course.
Copyright 1936, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
A week or two later we met, as usual without prearrangement, at the club — which club does n’t matter. Boston abounds in clubs, regular ones, and others which meet for dinner at members’ houses or in secluded holes in the wall, for no reason other than the pleasure of congeniality and conversation, and because the members have always done it on certain days of the month. This club of ours happens to be one of the regular ones, with rooms, and committees, and officers, and all the other paraphernalia of clubdom. Mr. Pennyfeather has a favorite chair, as befits a member of long standing; this chair is so situated, in a corner of the dark little smoking room, that, as he says, he can catch the steward’s eye as he peers into the room, and avoid the eye of old Mr. Blodgett doing the same thing. This is rather a neat trick, as I have pointed out to him; for the door through which steward and bore both peer is the identical aperture. Mr. Pennyfeather, however, does n’t care for explanations. II
We met, as I say, in Mr. Pennyfeather’s favorite corner at the club, a fortnight or so after our earlier Alanhattan conversation. No sooner had I taken the chair beside him than he performed his feat of catching the eye of the steward, whose name is John Pagliacci. The hour, the day, the season, and the weather were all propitious to uninterrupted talk, being, respectively, five o’clock, Saturday, spring, and sunny.
‘So you want to know why I don’t like New York,’ he began, even before our orders came. He was already enjoying himself. ‘Well, I’ve thought about it, and I’ve looked up facts, and thought about them, too. It’s been an interesting experience. I don’t like New York any better than I did before; but at least I know why I don’t like it.’
‘That’s something,’ I murmured.
‘It’s everything! Now I can forget about the blasted place for good. You had me a little worried, I admit; for human motives interest me, especially my own. Now I’ll give you my conclusions: New York does n’t interest me because New York does n’t matter.’
‘Does n’t matter!’ I exclaimed.
‘ Does n’t matter in the least,’ he repeated firmly. ‘And I’ve found that the reason I dislike New York, as distinguished from being uninterested in it, is because New Yorkers think it matters so enormously. Yes, I confess it: what irritates me most is the average New Yorker’s smug assumption that his town is important, and that because he’s a New Yorker he is important, too. Condescending! Not that he’s been a New Yorker very long; maybe three or four years, for an average. Not a train comes into the Grand Central Station without decanting five burning young poets, sometimes six — poets who came to New York, not to write poetry (nobody writes poetry within the city limits), but to find recognition. For they think of recognition as the end of the poet’s trail, never caring that it also means they’re done as poets. For “recognition” substitute the Manhattan synonym, “publicity.” By the time they have that, they’ve begun to think and speak of themselves as “New Yorkers,” a much more satisfactory term than “poet.” Then they may look down on their old home folks and their old home selves with pleasurable condescension. They have at last achieved their ambition, which was never to write good poetry, but to gratify their egos by thinking of themselves as poets. Of course I use the term “poet” metaphorically — it’s the same with every other kind of creature. New York takes their integrity, squeezes it into a more pleasing shape, massages it, flatters it, and presto! Good-bye integrity. Sometimes New York gives them something nice to take its place — and a pretty prize it is, too, much in demand nowadays. Sometimes it gives them that good old pot of fool’s gold, Success.’
‘Pennyfeather,’I interrupted, ‘you exaggerate, you show an unbecoming heat. Anyway, what you say is n’t true. New York being recognized as the money centre of the country, — the gambling centre, if you like, — I think it much more fair to say that people come to New York for the sole purpose of making money quickly. I find such direct simplicity of motive honest and sweetly reasonable, if not praiseworthy; and when you say —’
‘Of course! That’s what I do say: money — success. A successful man is one who has succeeded in making money. Say what you will, in the American tradition — in the tradition of every new land — money has always been the medium by which success is measured. We try to hide the horrid taste by proclaiming that we don’t want money merely for what it will buy, — a childish point of view, if ever there was one, — but as a sign that we’ve made good. Millions of people are hoarse from repeating this axiom. There’s some truth in it, too. But in New York you’ve jolly well got to have money. You can’t stay there without it. Thus you find concentrated in New York throngs of men and women proud of the unattractive and inhuman qualities which are essential to success in business. Not that I mind that, especially. The thing I mind is what their eternal preoccupation with money does to people who become obsessed with it. It shows in their manners, — even the filling-station attendants in New York have bad manners, — and in their faces. You know the New York face: a gray, fearful, avid mask, worn by a man wearily and everlastingly hurrying on the same shabby errand that brought him to New York and keeps him there — the chance of gaining another dollar. Not earning another dollar — wangling another, by his wits. You are familiar with the New York face?’
I nodded. Mr. Pennyfeather knocked out his pipe, and went on, still in a tone of pitying indignation, such as a child uses in talking about his parents. I missed, however, the underlying note of affection. ‘It’s the face of one who has lost his independence, as well as his bearings. In his own opinion the New Yorker is the most independent of mortals; and so he is, in the sense that nobody cares what becomes of him. Actually, he is the victim of certain tyrannies which are peculiar to all great cities, but especially to New York. Of these the tyrannies of time and space are the most obvious: of time, because the New Yorker can move no faster in any direction than the crowd will let him; of space, because, unless very rich, he is reduced to living in a cave set in rocks, with a magnificently dressed doorman to make him feel agreeably important. He gets used to his cave, as he gets used to the dirt, the smell, the still incessant if deklaxonized roar from the canyons below — even to the extent of boasting of advantages that his den possesses over those of his neighbors. But a cave it remains, a mere refuge. He does n’t even own it, in most cases.
‘More than in any other city he is at the mercy of vague social and economic forces, vast mysterious combinations of anonymous power and privilege. The policeman on the corner is something hostile rather than protective; excepting, I must admit, the genially paternal Fifth Avenue traffic cops. New Yorkers live in fear, and look it— “cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears.” A narrow glittering strip runs down the centre of Manhattan. You can see it plainly from the top of the Empire State Building as it disappears to the south and crops up again in the towers of Wall Street, as it bulges east and west to embrace semiisolated oases in the encompassing fury, filth, and squalor. In this glittering section, privilege is king, here the cave dwellers are less completely at the mercy of the forces that harry the other millions. Yet even privilege does n’t protect them from the ravening hordes of dirty taxis in the streets; they must scuttle for their lives just like everybody else. Lawlessness is close to the surface in New York; it betrays itself in little ways and big: every driver cheats at the traffic lights, and when the upper-Manhattan street lights failed a few months ago — you remember? — they all took advantage of the darkness by trying to drive the wrong way on one-way streets. The wonder is n’t that the inhabitants are proud of being New Yorkers, but that they ever get used to the place. They do, though, at a price.’
‘Come, come, Pennyfeather,’ I said, ‘don’t exaggerate. All you say may be true. Still, New York can’t be dismissed so easily. The place may not matter to you or me, or to New Englanders in general. But. how about the rest of the country? I don’t know how many women have told me that they love New York because they feel so alive there. What do they mean? You know: they mean the theatre, Broadway, fashions, high buildings, stir, shops, literature, art galleries, new movements, new ideas, the sense of money, hotel lobbies, Wall Street, and all the other elements that go to make up New York. Surely New York sets the style in such matters, and exerts a tremendous influence over the country. Not in New England, perhaps, I grant, you. New England still retains some of its stubborn distrust of notions and catchwords. But you need n’t try to tell me that Mrs. Smith of Akron and Mrs. Brown of Spokane don’t keep an eye peeled on New York for the latest hats and shoes and cocktail napkins and novels and song hits. Or that when a company of troupers hit town they don’t judge the show by the length of its run on Broadway.’
I spoke as fast and loud as I could, for Pennyfeather had been wriggling with impatience to interrupt. Unwisely, I stopped to draw breath, and in he jumped.
‘I grant you that, and more. But you don’t grasp my meaning. New York is merely the clearinghouse which receives, concentrates, and distributes new ideas from the outer world. It originates, generates, little. That’s why New York is important in a mechanical sense only. Women’s fashions, as you know, come from Paris. New York adapts them and cheapens them and standardizes them so that every American woman can afford to fulfill her ambition of being dressed just like every other woman. New York’s great financial structure is modeled on London’s. Who writes the books and plays and poems, gets out the magazines and newspapers? New Yorkers? Not on your life! Writers may publish in New York, and go there to cash in on their success (hence the literary tea — ever been to one? My God!), but they move out again fast enough if they’re any good. Otherwise they get into journalism, or live on gin and kisses till they rot. Who’s Who lists about six hundred New York writers; I looked into it for the fun of it. Of these, I’d never even heard of four hundred — mostly women. Of the remaining two hundred, a quarter neither were born in New York nor live there: they’re simply down under their publishers’ addresses. That leaves a hundred and fifty. About a hundred of them — including many whose writings are merely incidental to their true occupations — were born in other states or abroad. Boiled down, I counted about twenty-five writers and journalists of established national reputation who are born New Yorkers, in the true sense of the word. Twenty-five out of six hundred supposedly good enough for permanent embalmment in Who’s Who!
‘The serious music,’ Mr. Pennyfeather continued, after a short pause which he utilized for staring at me as if he dared me to contradict him — a thing I was in no position to do at the moment, ‘the serious music is composed and presented largely by foreigners, imported for the purpose and delighted to be in the big money. The theatre, I admit, amounts to little in this country outside New York; and the theatre is dying of the vapors. The movies, with all their faults, have a hundred times its vitality and courage. Can you think of any element in the New York scene strong enough to revitalize the stage, to make it anything more than the vehicle for clever and workmanlike rehashings? I can’t. No, the renaissance will come from outside, when it comes, like everything else.
‘The fact that Broadway may have a prosperous year now and then is n’t a sign that the quality of its material has necessarily improved: New Yorkers go to a first night, not because the offering is good, but because it’s new. As with the stage, so with the arts. Do you think one out of ten of the crowds that jammed the Van Gogh show last autumn had ever heard of Van Gogh? Of course not! He was just the latest thing to see, the latest thing not to miss, the new thing to talk about.
‘For that is the third great tyranny under which New Yorkers live, the tyranny of The Latest. What is it this week? Backgammon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Van Gogh, skiing, Lucienne Boyer, Malay turbans, Technocracy, no hats for men, roller skating, humanism, Joe Louis, the Blue Room — no matter: there is always something. First comes the build-up, then the pay-off, then — oblivion. In any case, your Manhattanite must see or read or visit the week’s novelty at once, or pay the price of continual uneasiness. He must also read up on the subject enough to be able to talk about it at dinner parties — did you ever know a New Yorker to confess ignorance about, anything? Ha! But his childlike passion for novelty is no mere coincidence. I truly believe that, if it were n’t for the promise of something new and exciting each day, life there would become more than relatively unbearable, and he’d go mad. (Mind you, I’m very sorry for him.) To most New Yorkers, especially to the women, who set the sharp, shrill note of Metropolitan existence, the new fad has become life itself, just as their fear of “dating” is the spectre of their waking hours. The average New Yorker thinks even of Art-with-acapital-A, not in terms of beauty, but in terms of emotional excitement, of something to get a kick out of. It’s the price they pay for living there, poor devils!
‘Novelty!’ Mr. Pennyfeather took a clipping from his wallet. ‘Let me read you this — it’s from Lewis Gannett’s review of Perish in Their Pride, by the French writer, de Montherlant. ‘“The real trouble with her,’ M. de Montherlant remarks of one of his characters, a modern-arty girl, ‘and it was part of the real trouble with her generation and her time, was that novelty and worth were synonymous for her. There we have a sign of barbarism. In every society it is always the elements of inferior intelligence which crave to be in the movement. Incapable of discernment through want of taste, culture, and critical capacity, they judge a problem automatically on the principle that the true is the new.’” Not an observation of great originality, perhaps,’ said Pennyfeather, replacing the clipping, ‘but well expressed; and obviously pertinent to New York, even though the author’s theme happened to be the spiritual decay of the French aristocracy. And so I say again, New York does n’t matter.’
‘Well,’ I replied, after a tactful pause, ‘life in New York is stimulating, anyway. At. least it’s never dull.’
‘Dull!’ He fell on me again. ‘Of course it’s dull! Just like life in Boston, and every other great city. But at least other cities are free from the worst form of dullness, the brittle dullness of neurotic fatigue; and comparatively free, too, from the abysmal dullness of New York’s be-all and end-all, Smartness. What a miserable toadword it is! Paradoxically, nothing more monotonous than the glittering uniformity of New York smartness is to be found anywhere. Look at the smart women: identical in dress, vocabulary, appearance, obsessions, habits, ambitions. And the restaurants. Many of them are charming, like the women, and — also like the women — often give remarkably good value. But. the restaurants are imitations of foreign models, even named after famous European eating places, as often as possible. Some of the imitations are good enough to outdo the originals in quality of food, service, and atmosphere, and you have the pleasant illusion of being actually in Paris, or London, or Vienna, or Madrid — until you sit down and look at the customers. The customers are fakes. They don’t match the impressive background. They look ill at ease — and so the whole effect is ruined. Smartness is essentially imitative, without worth; and so I say that their undiscriminating worship of this woebegone godling has made New Yorkers, in their sophisticated way, the most sheeplike people on earth. And don’t you go confusing sophistication with civilization, either. A truly civilized human is the goods.’
‘Like you and me?’
‘That’s right. Let s talk about something else. New York does n’t matter. To hell with it.’
‘Does any big city matter very much?’
‘Yes. Paris matters to the French. London matters to the British Empire. What happens in Paris is vitally important to every Frenchman. Paris is the spiritual and physical core of the nation, the symbol of French moral and æsthetic idealism.’ He shook his head. ‘Not little old New York. There really used to be a little old New York, you know, in the George M. Cohan sense. But it disappeared during the war. John! ’
Pagliacci’s melancholy face peered through the door. Mr. Pennyfeather held up two fingers, and the waiter, wholly comprehending, started to withdraw, when Pennyfeather called him back.
‘Do you like New York, John?’ he asked, conversationally.
John almost smiled. ‘Yes, sir. Lotsa money.’
‘Ah,’ said Mr. Pennyfeather. The waiter withdrew.
‘Lotsa money,’ said Mr. Pennyfeather reflectively. ‘Lotsa, lotsa, lotsa. Lotsa everything. Do you want facts?’ He turned fiercely to me. ‘Facts about lotsa? I’ve got ’em right here.’ He took out his pocketbook again, and from it a long and rather unclean envelope, the back covered with fine scribblings in pencil.
‘Of course, when one speaks of New York, one is really thinking of Manhattan. The population of Manhattan at the last census was roughly 1,654,000 — lotsa people; probably less, by now, for it has been steadily diminishing since 1910, when it reached its maximum of 2,330,000. What’s happened to the difference? Those that have n’t gone home for good, or happily moved to Boston, have swarmed out to the suburbs. If you estimate the average suburban commuter’s time between home and office as at least an hour each way, you won’t be far wrong. How’s that for a life?’
I shuddered. ‘ Yes,’ I agreed, ‘ I know the New York subway.’
‘Still,’ he went on, ‘they’d rather fight the Battle of Commutation twice a day than stay in the city overnight, and I’m not sure I blame them. One wonders how many regular commuters there are among the — let’s see — twenty-one thousand Greater New Yorkers who die annually of heart disease, and whether Manhattan’s ninetyfour hospitals are sufficient.’
‘That’s a good many hospitals.’
‘Sure it is. But enough? There are even a few lying-in hospitals among them, too. Some people must be born in New York! Then there are one hundred and thirteen Homes, or Refuges, among them twenty-two devoted solely to the care of Fallen, Friendless, Destitute, Aged, Indigent, Infirm, Working, Unmarried, Homeless girls and women.’
‘Gosh!’ I said.
‘ Gosh — exactly. And speaking of the ladies, the rape statistics throw an interesting light on the recent growth of New York’s much-advertised broadmindedness.’
‘Don’t pun,’ I interrupted quickly. ‘What? Oh — sorry. Call it tolerance. Anyway, in 1910 there were seventy-nine indictments in the Manhattan courts for this particular peccadillo, and twenty-eight convictions. For 1934, New York may point with pride to a record of only three convictions out of one hundred and twentyfour indictments.’
‘ Well, well — good for them. I ’ve always thought — ’
‘ Yes, New York is safe for rape. But whatever you do there, don’t commit arson. They don’t like it. Last year they convicted twenty-two out of twenty-three indicted. And I’d go easy on felonious assault, too, no matter how much you’re tempted. Five hundred and seven suspects were indicted last season, but twenty-five more than that number went up the river. That’s good.‘
‘It’s better than perfection. What else do people do in New York?’
‘Well,’ said Mr. Pennyfeather, bending over his envelope, ‘let’s see. According to the 1930 census, 32,486 of them spend their time agreeably cutting and curling other people’s hair. Fiftyfive thousand wait on table, twenty thousand run elevators, one hundred and six thousand drive cars and trucks; there are forty-two thousand tailors, twenty-two thousand trained nurses, ten thousand stockbrokers — ’
‘What!’ I broke in, astonished. ‘Only ten thousand? Why, I thought — ’ ‘You thought New York was mostly populated by stockbrokers? No, it only seems that way. And that was in 1930. There may not be more than half that number now. You see, stockbrokers are interested only in big sums. When scats on the Exchange were still fetching as high as $480,000, in 1930, the year after they should have known better, brokers were still scrambling for them. But in 1934, when they were being given away for $70,000 and a suit of clothes, nobody wanted any. Stockbrokers are a proud race. They like to do their own thinking.
‘But such figures represent mere occupational odds and ends. There are nearly three hundred thousand clerks — not counting clerks in shops—who spend their time adding up other people’s figures and misfiling their correspondence. Your chances of being knocked down in the street by a factory worker are even better. Three hundred and seventy-five thousand of them work in New York’s 19,233 factories and workshops. There were just ten factories more than that in 1899, and in 1919, the top year, there were thirty-two thousand, employing six hundred and thirty-nine thousand hands. But times change, people get sick of New York and move away.
‘Reverting to writers again, no fewer than nine thousand New Yorkers admitted to the census taker in 1930 that they wrote. I never realized the Algonquin held that many, did you? Then there are nearly sixteen thousand actors. One of them is Katharine Cornell — who cares about the others? Eleven thousand artists and twenty-one thousand musicians support themselves somehow or other — one hopes, for their sakes, not wholly by the practice of their professions. Maybe they sell things in their spare time. One hundred and ninety-five thousand other men and women do nothing else but sell things — is n’t that a comfort?’
‘Not to me.’
‘But to them. I tell you, it’s been interesting, looking up these figures. Who would have said that that many New Yorkers even spoke English well enough to sell things? Would you?’
‘Well, you can always find someone.’
‘No, people are mistaken in thinking of New York as a polyglot city. Roughly, only one third of the population of the five boroughs are foreignborn — 2,360,000 out of 7,600,000, in round numbers. As to their religious affiliations, it’s hard to say with any degree of accuracy to-day; but in 1926, when the last religious census was taken, there were 1,765,000 Jews, 1,734,000 Catholics, 141,000 Episcopalians, and 380,000 members of other sects. Of these the Jews are spiritually much the best cared for: they have over a thousand synagogues, as compared with four hundred and thirty Catholic and one hundred and ninety-four Episcopal churches.
‘Ah well, figures mean little enough. It is n’t the ships, said Conrad, it’s the men in them. Most great cities — New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Charleston — have a flavor, a color, of their own; a character peculiarly the product of their people’s habits and aspirations. What has New York? Anything but size, and a sort of weary cosmopolitanism? I doubt it. Is there anything sadder than the contrast between the shining towers of Manhattan as seen from the deck of an incoming liner, and the West Side streets through which the traveler is hurled after landing? Is n’t it typical of the New York spirit, this contrast? All showy grandeur on the surface, all shabbiness underneath. Plenty of civically virtuous leaders have tried to secure better housing for the people, tried to clean and beautify the parks and make the streets look self-respecting; worthy beginnings have been made along these and other lines. But they remain beginnings; and the reason they remain so is that New Yorkers don’t care. The roof gardens at Rockefeller Center opened in a blaze of publicity and lush green; so did the renovated Bryant Park. What will they look like ten years from now?’
‘If that’s a question,’ I replied, ‘they will look like the very devil; but — ’
’The people of New York liked them last year because they were novelties; but novelties don’t stay green without constant care, much less parks. Don’t keep interrupting. Who is the typical New Yorker? I’ve jotted down a list here, the first ones to come to my mind, all Manhattan celebrities of recent vintage: Walter Winchell, Jimmy Walker, Al Smith, Grover Whalen, the late Otto Kahn, Irving Berlin, Jack Dempsey, Alexander Woollcott, Paul D. Cravath, George Gershwin, Harry Romanoff Gerguson, Rodman Wanamaker, Walter P. Chrysler. Who is the typical New Yorker in that list — or in one ten times as long?’
‘Jimmy Walker,’ I said, ‘at a guess.’
‘ Of course. And what other city could have produced a figure just like him? People are mistaken, however, in thinking that New Yorkers are essentially more venal than the inhabitants of other cities. Tammany Hall misgoverns, but only on a larger scale than elsewhere. The people depend on their Tammany Halls because only through such organizations can they get their personal problems settled promptly, their wrongs righted. If I were a New York clerk living on twenty-five dollars a week, and my landlord tried to have me thrown out, I ’d waste no time writing letters to the Housing Authority, or whatever they call it; I’d go see Izzy O’Brien, my district boss, and get immediate action. That’s why the so-called decent element in any great city is helpless in its efforts to get honest government — in New York, because of its greater size, proportionately more helpless. The respectable press does what it can by a perpetual eruption of indignation, an incessant sounding of the civic tocsin: mere sound and fury in the upper air. And there are some good papers in New York, though none has yet developed the prestige of the London Times, nor does any one of them exert nationally the authority that the Times exercises in the British Empire. Even the best of them remain essentially local papers.’
‘Oh, come now,’ I said. ‘I read a New York paper every day.’
‘But that’s only because you can’t get anything but scraps of news — except local stuff — in the Boston papers. Boston’s badly off for papers, I admit. But, superior as some of the New York papers are, even their proprietors share to some extent American journalism’s naïve conviction that the way to put out a fire is to pour on more gasoline.’
‘ It is n’t their function to put out fires,’ I objected. ‘Their job is to start fires.’
‘Well — that’s true, in a way. But they do know how to keep them blazing, don’t they? Circulation!’
‘Be fair, Pennyfeather: that’s all they’ve time for.’
‘You’re right. There’s no time for anything in New York. People there measure time not by the calendar but by the alarm clock. Time passes in New York not in a procession of days but in a series of convulsive jerks, interspersed with periods of exhaustion instead of intervals of repose. It takes years of living there to get used to this phenomenon — which is, after all, a perfectly natural one. For people don’t go to New York to live: living takes leisure. They go there to get drunk — not necessarily on liquor, though there’s plenty of that, but on excitement, money, publicity, success, music, art, theatres, fashion, or whatever other drug they’re fondest of taking.
The result is a spectacle uniquely combining the vulgar and the superficial.’
‘But there are so many nice people in New York,’ I said, beginning to feel a little uncomfortable — as though Mr. Pennyfeather were attacking a friend.
‘Of course there are,’ he agreed, ’lots of them: civilized, urbane, cultured men and women who mind their own business — and yet retain a kind of ironic civic-mindedness. They know and admit that it’s silly of them to live there, even in such relatively favored quarters as Murray Hill, and the Washington Square district, and up near Central Park, or over by the East River. But something keeps them on; habit, perhaps, or a well-nourished sense of proportion. There are no finer folk anywhere than the best of them. Such people are keenly interested in the world about them, and have the ability to make intelligent use of the Manhattan maelstrom without ever letting the current drag them under. Canny fishermen, with a light hand, they keep the fish they like and throw the rest back; and somehow they also retain their appreciation for the little things that drift ashore for their amusement. They sec New York objectively, and live their own lives regardless. Every great city has people like that, including New York — real city folk. There’s nothing finer. The trouble in New York is to find them. They’re lost.
‘That’s one type. Then, too, there are the swells, the old New York swells, who have become — no doubt, in self-defense — the most conventionally correct humans on earth. Except, for the physical fact of their presence, they have nothing whatever to do with the city. They see only each other, and live by the conventions thus propagated.’
‘Yes, I know a few of ’em,’ I said, smiling as I thought of one in particular.
‘Do you know — well, I won’t mention his name, even to you. He’s a typical, successful, law-abiding pillar of the church, father of a happy family — oh, the most correct and blameless chap in the world. Well, darned if he did n’t take a mistress a while ago, in a formal, gingerly kind of way — for no reason I can imagine except that he felt it to be the thing to do, or for fear the lack of one might make him conspicuous! An extreme case, perhaps, but not uncharacteristic, — for he’s a type that would rat her be dead than conspicuous, — and typical of the sheeplike quality that seems to invest every variety of New Yorker, from the highest to the lowest.
‘It’s a dull subject. Let’s order dinner. John! Get the bill of fare. That reminds me: a few years ago the letter columns of the Herald Tribune were filled with a wholly serious debate on the question of whether or not there was an island off the coast of New England called Thatcher’s Island, and, if so, whether there were two lights on it or only one. The editor finally closed the argument by printing a map of Cape Ann on the editorial page, with an arrow pointing to Thatcher’s. I trifled with the notion of starting a similar discussion in the Transcript: Is there an island called Manhattan on the coast south of Boston, or is it something we ate last night? And then I gave it up, because I realized that nobody cares.’
‘Nobody in Boston cares, you mean,’ I said ironically.
‘That’s what I mean — nobody in Boston. What do you want for dinner?’ He tossed me the menu which John had placed on the table, and sat back in his chair, grinning at me.
I have sometimes noticed that Mr. Pennyfeather is a man of very positive likes and dislikes.