IT began one night about a year ago, in the front car of an Eighth Avenue subway train. The middle-aged gentleman on the single seat next to the motorman’s box yawned, looked at his watch, closed his book; then he pulled out a pair of pajamas from a black brief case, and, to the intense dismay of his fellow passengers, began to undress.
Humming a little tune badly off key, as unself-consciously as if he were in his own bedroom, he stripped off his clothes and donned the pajamas. Next, he wound his pocket watch and laid it on the window sill. Producing a hanger from the brief case, he arranged his suit neatly on it and hooked it on to the window catch behind him. Then, settling down on the seat, he relaxed and closed his eyes, and in two minutes was snoring gently.
All night he slept peacefully, with his mouth open. The various passengers who came and went during the small hours goggled at him like kids at a magician, but they all talked in subdued tones, and nearly every one of them, when he got to his station, found himself leaving the car on tiptoe.
The occupants of the car at seven-thirty the next morning got a severe jolt when they saw him open his eyes, stretch contentedly, get up and take three deep breaths, lean over and touch the floor three times, then step out of his pajamas and begin to pull on his clothes. Eyes popped out and newspapers slipped to the floor as he produced a toilet case and, using the car window for a mirror, proceeded to lather himself and shave. Meticulous to the last stroke, he patted on lotion and talcum, then donned his shirt and tie, vest, and coat. Having stowed all his belongings in the brief case, he sat down again like any ordinary business man on his way to work, and stared up with a blank expression at the advertising cards across the aisle. At Chambers Street he got up and left.
A buxom lady in black, who had watched the proceedings fascinatedly all the way from 181st Street, voiced an emphatic ‘Hmph!’ as the car doors closed.
‘Well, can you feature that!’ she exclaimed to nobody in particular. ‘You’d a thought he lived here!'
Mr. Badger had, in point of fact, moved in.
Thenceforth, until his tragic death a couple of weeks ago, he entered the forward car of that same train at the Chambers Street Station every night at seven-thirty, read or otherwise amused himself until eleven, and then retired.
In view of the subsequent publicity, which he frankly deplored, and the general misunderstanding of his motives, which he made no effort to correct, it seems only fair that I should give a brief account of Mr. Badger as I came to know him by being a pretty regular passenger on that train myself. While he was n’t the kind to obtrude his affairs on others, he took no offense at personal questions, always answered them with perfect courtesy and frankness, always seemed a little surprised that anybody should take any interest in him.
In the first place, you must n’t confuse Mr. Badger with those nomadic wretches you often read about who, happy to get warmth and shelter for a nickel, simply wander into the nearest subway, catch the first train, and curl up for the night. On the contrary, he was a staid, respectable unmarried gentleman with an income of thirty dollars a week. ‘I’d no more think of spending the night in just any old subway train,’ he told me once, ‘than I’d consider ringing the bell at. just any old house, wherever I happened to be, and asking for a bed. I want a home, not a series of flophouses.’
Moreover, he was not staging a public protest against the New Deal or the High Cost of Living, or demonstrating how you could have orchids on your budget, or setting himself up as the Underground Thoreau — all of which explanations were offered by writers in the local press who lauded or excoriated Mr. Badger according as they approved or disapproved the principles they ascribed to him.
The genesis of his idea was as simple and unspectacular as making a bed. After tw entytwo years of living in various furnished single rooms, he had got mortally fed up with it; besides, rents were on the boom, and thirty dollars would n’t go as far as it used to; so he thought out the whole business from all angles, and decided on the subway as the logical solution to his housing problem. After all,’ he remarked to me more than once, ‘there’s nothing radical or subversive about the idea, once you get used to it. The whole business of living in a subway train is remarkably like the business of living anywhere else. People who can’t understand it are simply being fooled by externals.’
Once his mind was made up to the change, Mr. Badger allowed himself a week to scout around for the best location, exactly as if he were choosing a house or apartment. Every night, after leaving his office on Warren Street and eating a modest dinner in a cafeteria, he rode on subways for three hours, trying first one line and then another. In a little brown notebook he jotted down careful memoranda concerning cleanliness, noisiness, softness of seats, smoothness of starting and stopping, and general riding qualities.
Certain lines, of course, he eliminated automatically. The Times Square-Grand Central shuttle trains, for instance, he crossed off the list without trial, ‘because,’ as he said, ‘they’re too much like transient hotels.’ The Queens-Brooklyn crosstown line of the Independent City-owned System was also out of the question, because it was too far away. But any train that covered a substantial route and passed reasonably close to Warren Street was a potential home.
While I won’t bother you with the intricate arguments and counter-arguments and nice distinctions by which Mr. Badger finally gave the preference to the Independent System, instead of the B. M. T. or the I. R. T., I think the one little detail which finally swung the trick is worth mentioning for the light it throws on Mr. Badger’s character. It was the fact that the Independent car has a little individual seat at each end next to the motorman’s compartment. ‘You see, I’ve never had a roommate,’ he confided, with a shy smile that became him immensely, ‘and I guess I’m too set in my ways to learn how to share a place with somebody else.’
Anyway, by Sunday night he had definitely selected the Washington Heights Express train that leaves 207th Street at 6.57 P.M., arriving at Chambers Street at 7.30. In the morning it passes there on the uptown trip at 8.13, so he would have time to get a leisurely breakfast before reporting at the office.
His week at the rooming house ended on Monday. Monday evening he moved into his new residence.
That first night, of course, he was content to rough it, as one always has to do on moving into a new place, but the next evening he brought several parcels with him. From a paper bag he fished out three serviceable coat hooks, which he proceeded to screw into the wall of the inotorman’s box. He carefully unwrapped a little potted fern and placed it on the window sill.
Other wrappings unpeeled to disclose a small mirror, a pair of book ends, a curtain rod, a pair of dimity curtains, a screwdriver. Without even noticing the rude stares and whispers of the other passengers, he set about making his corner a little more homelike. With the help of the screwdriver he attached the holders for the curtain rod above the window. The curtains themselves gave him a good deal of trouble when he tried to hang them; he even tore a little hole in one of them trying to slip the rod through the hem at the top.
A woman across the aisle, who had watched the whole proceeding with stern disapproval, grew more and more fidgety as she watched him struggle with the curtain. Finally she jumped up, snatched the whole business out of his hands, slipped the curtain on properly, and returned to her seat, all without saying a word, though Mr. Badger thanked her politely.
A few minutes later he stepped back and appraised his work with a warm glow of satisfaction. (‘No great shakes,’ he once told me, ‘but comfortable bachelor diggings.’) Then he glanced down at the accumulation of wrapping paper and string on the floor, and frowned thoughtfully. Walking back through the car and into the next one, he found a conductor.
‘ What,’ he asked, ‘do you do with waste paper?'
‘Huh?’ returned the conductor.
‘I have some rubbish up in my place. How do I get rid of it?’
The conductor followed Mr. Badger suspiciously into the front car. When he saw what hail happened, his mouth dropped open; it stayed open while his eyes took in the curtains, the hooks, the fern, the book ends. Meanwhile the train had come to a stop. Passengers were clamoring at the doors, to be let out.
The conductor scurried back to his post, but as soon as the train started up he was back again, with his mouth still open. Mr. Badger, who by this time had gathered up the paper into a neat bundle, handed it to the conductor, but that official still did n’t say a word. ‘It’s remarkable,’ Mr. Badger once observed to me dryly, ‘how the first sight of my home invariably seems to render the beholder speechless.'
Two stations farther on, the conductor ran out and dropped the paper into a rubbish basket on the platform. Later on, he returned to the front car and found Mr. Badger in pajamas, asleep. This time the mouths of both of them were open.
Mr. Badger’s subsequent story, thanks to the newspaper men who swarmed down on him like hungry pigeons, is pretty well known. He was interviewed, photographed, solicited, picketed, asked to endorse this and that; but through it all he preserved the same air of polite aloofness, the same desire just to be let alone. The question of his right to vote threatened for a short time to become a cause célèbre, but he averted the crisis by graciously relinquishing the franchise in spite of the frenetic objurgations of the Stars and Stripes League; he said that he had never voted for a winning candidate anyway, and it was most unlikely that his vote would have any material bearing on the outcome of future elections.
After a while the regular passengers came to take him for granted, pointed him out condescendingly to strangers, even reprimanded an occasional newcomer who inadvertently sat down in Mr. Badger’s home in the absence of its owner. When the subway officials sent a deputation to ask him to evacuate, he declined, politely but firmly, and sent them back with a counter-proposal: namely, that the company permit him to do cooking on Sundays and install running water to save him the trouble of carrying a supply in a small canteen for shaving. The company declined, but later yielded to the extent of putting in a little water tank when they found their fares increased 2.59 per cent as a result of Mr. Badger’s curiosity value.
What is not so commonly known, though it illustrates to perfection the methods used in big business to-day, is that the B. M. T. and the I. R. T. people each sent representatives to try to induce Mr. Badger to come over to them, even offering light-housekeeping privileges and anything else within reason. Upon hearing of these bids, the Independent officials hastened to promise Mr. Badger that they would redecorate his car completely at the end of his first twelve months’ occupancy. He accepted the offer, but he told me confidentially that he would have stayed anyway, because he hated moving.
As it turned out, though, they never had to carry out their promise. One wet night about two and a hall weeks ago, Mr. Badger came home looking feverish and ill. One of the regular passengers — who, though he had never spoken to Mr. Badger, took a neighborly interest in him — mentioned it to the conductor as he left the train.
After Mr. Badger was asleep the conductor came in and looked at him, found him breathing stertorously, a hectic flush in his cheeks. At the next station he told the man in the change booth to call a doctor. When the physician boarded the train at Smith and Ninth Streets, Brooklyn, he examined Mr. Badger hurriedly and pronounced it diphtheria.
The car had to be quarantined, of course. For two days the company was obliged to furnish meals for the seven other passengers and the motorman, who could only tap out disconsolate messages to their families and friends through the closed windows of the car during the brief moments when it stopped at their respective stations. On the evening of the second day, Mr. Badger died.
After the car had been properly fumigated, the company was undecided whether to advertise Mr. Badger’s apartment, and try to secure another tenant, or to dismantle it. After a few days of bitter wrangling, the directors decided on the latter course, perhaps partly because of threats of reprisals by the other two lines, as well as protests from influential real-estate men already jittery over the trailer menace.
Mr. Badger’s improvements were removed, and instructions were issued to all subway employees to regard the episode as if it had never been. To discourage souvenir hunters, the much-discussed car was shifted to another route, which I have promised not to divulge.
But if you should find yourself riding in a car that still has three small holes in the wall of the motorman’s box at one end, try to worm your way into the good graces of the conductor and see whether you can start him reminiscing about Mr. Badger. If he won’t talk, you may be sure it’s because he’s afraid for his job.