Bed and Board


IT is often said (a saying which I am out to debunk) that only those who have tasted defeat and victory on the battlefield, who have been poor and rich, and who have hated and loved intensely, have lived the full life. I used to carry this apothegmatical draff in my mental little knapsack until about fifteen years ago, when circumstances over which I had little control showed up the hollowness of it and convinced me that unless a man has been engaged in professional bedmaking he cannot fathom to what depths of despair, not to mention lint, dust, and escaped feathers, mankind may descend — and that futility and insectifuge have much in common.

It is not my intention to belittle or attack the domesticated, perfectly legal kind of bedmaking that takes place in countless homes and hostels, day out and day in, and which is generally done by efficient women; my mission is to warn you not to sell out or give notice in order to take up that sullen, hybrid kind of bedmaking which is done at railroad division points out West, during the hot season, by desperate, able-bodied men given to snuff consumption, prickly heat, and baseness of utterances.

I didn’t become a bedmaker of my own free will or because I was driven by a creative urge; on the other hand, I wasn’t exactly shanghaied; rather, I was inveigled into entering the game by a clever ruse planned and sprung by an interstate carrier which, while well thought of on the whole, was wont, when cornered and forced to fight for its existence, to hit below the belt with a demoniacal cunning and strength. This foul tendency was very noticeable when the company recruited bedmakers for its desert outposts.

Work was plentiful, and I never thought of doing common labor in those days, although some of the pick-andshovel jobs that I turned down then would make my mouth water now. Distributing circulars, collecting angleworms for wholesale bait houses, merrygo-round currying, and suchlike pursuits, where mental alertness and manual dexterity must coöperate to the utmost, were and always have been, I’m proud to hint, my proper line.

Just prior to my vocational decline, I cleaned bottles in a bottling plant situated in Northern California. I liked the work. There is a certain undefinable glamour about places where bottles furnish the leitmotiv, no matter if the bottles have been desecrated by neutral fluids (in this particular case water issuing from somewhere underground, presumably from the suburbs of Hell, because it tasted and smelled strongly of brimstone). The water was labeled and sold as a body builder, and, because I took it myself without visible harm except for noticing a pronounced longing for something else, — anything else, — I feel it my duty to vouch for it whenever I have the opportunity to reach strata enlightened enough to discern that a sincere endorsement, thoughtfully penned, is not always a symptom of belletristic beriberi.

I didn’t linger overly long at the bottling plant. The reason for this was that one of my fellow workers, a runaway pantryman (or, as we say at Harvard and in Hollywood, ‘escapist’) from the old S. S. Sierra, then plying between San Francisco and Sydney, talked us both out of the job. To the underprivileged who never have been on equal footing with an Australian pantryman, I wish to state that, once you have mastered his accent and his breath, you’ll find yourself listening to some of the most scabrous fables ever snickered at. Our conversation got so bad — or good, if you are the earthy kind — that Cedric (that was the pantryman’s name) and I neglected our work.

Now cleaning bottles is precision work. A mixture of water and sand is injected with great force, encouraged to do the St. Vitus, and then, when the dirty work is done, scrupulously withdrawn. Perhaps Cedric and I forgot to withdraw every single foreign particle; at any rate the foreman — a martinet, by the bye — accused us of carelessness. Cedric, a habitually profane gainsayer, said (or, more truthfully, used words to the effect) that in order to counteract the laxative properties of the water a drachma of grit, added now and then, would ‘top off the whole bloomin’ sorry mess just right!’ This innocent remark finished us. We were requested to take distance, which we did; in Cedric’s case this meant all the way to Coonamble, New South Wales, because the foreman was thorough and believed in letting the immigration authorities in on the pantryman’s doubtful international status quo.

I returned to San Francisco by personal propulsion. This time I had my mind set upon a little roustabouting. A roustabout is a man who is expected to be generally useful and isn’t, not ‘a roving laborer on a river steamboat line,’ as Professor C. M. Stevens defines the word. (To him and his Standard Home and School Dictionary a terse, timely rebuke!) I lost no time getting in touch with the captains of industry, using their talent scouts as intermediary. I struck what I thought was pay dirt so effortlessly that I should have known it was mica, but I was young then and held that the world was made to be conquered, not to be assayed. Subsequent events have belied this puerile tenet, and to them goes much of the credit, for the tragic undertone that veins this paper.


As I sauntered down the Skidroad, the hue and cry for ability, sinews, and acumen pleased me mightily. The blackboard of the leading labor exchange offered me the choice of milking a ‘small string’; sheepherding, ‘must be able to lamb and batch — dog needed, blankets furnished’; chopping cordwood, an ambitious undertaking laid out on princely lines, as it required ‘tools, tent, car & grubstake, also head good at figuring’; running a Fresno, ‘this is a cinch if you love action and are under 40’; going ‘South tonite’ as bull cook for ‘respectable Diesel dredger.’ If I didn’t like the direction, I could go ‘North tonite’ and high-climb, set chokers, sling rigging, or peel bark for ‘nice lumber Co.’

The trading was brisk, with muckers making a new high for the year at 37 cents an hour, up 1½ from the previous close. ‘Pearl divers’ were very firm, repeated bids of ‘ the whole Sunday afternoon off after 7 P.M.’ doing little or nothing to relieve the scarcity, a condition imputed to a veritable landslide of backwardation in that particular issue. While I waited for the mid-session sell-off and for someone with the tag of a Bull Durham sack hanging out to appear, a senior member of the exchange produced a rabbit foot attached to his suspenders by a retired shoelace, moistened it with a neat dash of tobacco juice, used it. to wipe out ‘6 Mule Skinners 6,’ and baited my trap with a piece of chalk, as follows: —

ROUSTABOUT, etc., for giant R.R. Co.!!
Must be fast! Must be young!!
Must be willing!!!
Fare and Fee advanced!
Meals supplied on the journey!!

It isn’t every day that your innermost ambition in life, embellished with the very qualities that have done so much towards making you no better than you ought to be, is dangled before your eager, trustful eyes. I was aching to become a roustabout; I was fast within the widest ramifications of the word; I was young, verdantly so; I was willing — perfectly willing to eat on the journey. I paid no attention to the little ‘etc.’ nestling innocently at the foot of the magnificent ‘ROUSTABOUT’; nor did I counsel that world-weary clique on the corner bench which, while waiting for something to turn up, turned down all assaults aimed at their hibernating energies as a matter of principle based more upon sound intuition than upon actual research; they could have told me, with a bitter inflection, that any advertisement for help was a serpent in disguise, the ‘etc.’ making it mortiferous.

The senior member probably noticed my agitation, because he stenciled my best and only shirt with the rabbit foot and said, ‘Wanta take a shot at it, son? It’s kinda position-like an’ got lotsa future in it — chance to work yourself up an’ get gray in the service in no time. Come right wit’ me,’ In the office he gave me my traveling rations (a box lunch marked ‘The Super Supper Sustaineries, Inc. Nothing over 15c’) and a railroad pass. Then he pushed an already filled-out form and a stub of pencil in my direction and confided, ‘Glad I chanced to spot you. Always gotter choose a lot before locatin’ the right timber. Them railroads are mighty particular customers. “The best or nothing!” they orders. Only way to please ‘em is to use your wits an’ hook whatever comes along — “alimitation process,” us professionals calls it. Sign right here. That’s it. An’ call again in the spring; I’ll be shootin’ fellers up to Collyradcr by then. S’long!’

Being busy breaking into the box lunch, I walked out carrying the railroad pass between my teeth. The cornerbench contingent spied my newly acquired badge of usefulness, which they immediately translated into chains of slavery. ‘Bound for the sticks, pard?’ one of them asked in a voice charged half-and-half with pity and awe. My mind primarily centred on two bologna sandwiches and a mangled slab of coconut pie, I nodded vaguely in an affirmative but patronizing manner and attributed the cathedral-like hush that fell over the labor mart to clumsily concealed envy.

Late in the afternoon of the next, day I debarked at my destination. The place was a division point, all right, the ‘ point’ being stressed in so ruthless a manner that the memory of it, even today, affects me like the wearing of a hair shirt full of wood ticks. The railroad track was bordered on one side by the desert; the opposite side, while suffering from the same menace, was ‘relieved’ by the company clubhouse and a water tank. On an exceptionally clear day one could see the snow-clad cones of a dissected mountain range jagging the horizon to the west; on an ordinary day the view was limited in any direction to alkaliferous sand dunes, superior mirages of gleaming Spanish bayonets, and inferior oases of scorched tufts of sagebrush that housed diamond rattlers. The clubhouse was a two-story structure, well kept up to conform with the track ballast, and notwithstanding its color, for which there is no name, and its design, which was ‘modified gingerbread,’ was a minor eyesore only, probably the exception from the line’s architectural standards, which were based upon the fact that if the station houses were execrably enough designed the passengers would postpone debarkation indefinitely and continue the journey rather than face an outrage. However, the Mexican ‘gandy-dancers,’ who bunked in a work train standing on a siding, always spoke of it as casa encantada. The ground floor was occupied by the lobby, restaurant, and kitchen, also by the depot; on the upper floor were the sleeping quarters.

I found the manager behind the desk in the lobby, absorbed in sketching nonswaying triple-decked beds on the back of yesterday’s menu. A slight man, gently approaching second childhood, his black alpaca coat (the sleeves of which were protected by transparent paper cuffs) wrinkled in the waist so profusivcly that, it resembled an Eton, he struck me as an ephemeral type from whom nothing rational could be expected. Later, after he had let me in on the eerie secret that he hailed from Western Kansas and now lived solely for ‘the promoting of systematic sleeping on a national scale,’ as he worded it, I put him down as a paranoiac ravaged by the mental itch which so often maims efficiency experts. ‘And now for your sphere of activity, me lad!’ he cried, brimming over with unsound verve and gayety.

My sphere of activity turned out to be sixty bedsteads divided between two dormitories and ten individual cells. The beds were operated according to the ‘never-never cooling’ system (the correct word for it in American is ‘chainsnoring’; in English, ‘multiple-reposing’) — that is, the sleeper was entitled to eight hours’ rest, after which time he had to give way to the next man in line. This meant a turnover of one hundred and eighty beds in twenty-four hours, or the making up of ninety beds in my shift, which lasted from 6 P.M. to f! A.M. every day in the week. Sundays were not observed in the remoter sections of the West fifteen years ago, because Christianity, although introduced and generally conceded to be charming in scope, had been found after a short trial to be impractical and a waste of time, like the removal of headgear at meals and other Eastern fads.

The making up of ninety beds in twelve hours requires (granting that you dote on bedmaking) no superhuman strength and endurance; but if, in addition, you are expected to clean thirty-six spittoons, three lavatories, a lobby, and a restaurant, it behooves you to step lively. If, on the other hand, you would rather rot in chains than meddle with your fellow man’s bed and spittoon, and, furthermore, you are not overly given to the grooming of public rooms, you may imagine my exasperation, not to say horror, as my duties were outlined. I didn’t suffer a visible breakdown; I merely asked when the next train for San Francisco was due to leave.

The manager showed no surprise at my sudden longing for travel. He explained dispassionately that no return pass would be issued to me until after six months of faithful service; the boarding of a freight train he considered inconvenient because of the watchfulness of the armed railroad detectives stationed in the yard; and as for the desert — here he smiled thoughtfully with just a touch of fiendishness — yes, my immediate predecessor was understood to be perishing by inches out there at that very moment. The rascal had absconded two days ago; no water, no roads, no shelter; plenty of zopilotes, coyotes, and hostile tribesmen — rather a ghastly end when you came to think of it. Clammy with terror, I blurted out that I was a roustabout, that I knew nothing about making up beds. This suited the manager fine. He said that he preferred a green hand if he was of the right kind. A youth free from inhibitions and set ideas could be moulded and taught the finer points of the profession more easily than an older man. As for roustabouting, he was a man of hobbies himself and saw no reason why I shouldn’t indulge in mine to my heart’s content in my spare time.

After having shown me how to make up a bed in eleven basic movements followed by two ‘touches of refinement,’ the latter not strictly necessary but thrown in as a sign of good will, he began to elaborate on a pet scheme of his. Once when confined in a hospital, he said, he had noticed that the nurses could change sheets and pillowcases without disturbing the occupant of the bed in the least. Why not commercialize this truly astonishing feat? It would do away with all irksome waiting and delay; as soon as one guest tumbled out of bed, another would tumble in, finding it made up not more than five minutes ago and yet broken in nicely. He hadn’t been able to obtain any technical books pertaining to t he matter, but he had written the Johns Hopkins and the Mayo people for the necessary data; as soon as they were forthcoming, I should be the man to put them into practice. He then left me to my fate, which immediately turned more stubborn in the shape of a longoverdue swing brakeman who used a yellow slicker as pajamas and, although chewing tobacco and expectorating in the general direction of the ceiling, feigned a coma impervious to any known mode of resurrection short of eye gouging.


For nine days — or nights, rather — I was a bedmaker. During that period I lost twenty-two pounds, the spring in my arches, the lustre in my wide-awake eyes, my faith in humanity and myself, one third of an upper tooth, and a pair of fireman’s and policeman’s suspenders in excellent condition — or, in toto, my youth. I gained a black eye, innumerable assorted insect bites, and $20.25 in wages, which I never have dared to collect because a warrant charging me with assault and battery was attached to my pay envelope at the head office in the city.

The first seven nights were bad enough, although, when Compared with the two nights following, they were but moderately nightmarish. On the eighth day the man who worked the day shift disappeared. He was a Cornishman who had seen ten years of service as a corporal in the Legion Étrangère in Madagascar and Tonkin and three weeks as a bedmaker. His recent downfall in society had preyed upon his mind, and to ease the burden he took to smoking marihuana. When last seen he had been charging a sand dune while waving a bed sheet and singing the Marseillaise. To take his place until a new victim arrived from San Francisco, a yard bull pulled off two vagrants from a freight train and tried to force them to make beds at pistol point. They were hardened characters and committed sabotage; after being judged incorrigible they were manhandled and returned to the boxcar.

It was now up to me to work the clock round. On the ninth day, in the evening, I had been on my toes for thirty-six hours polishing off close to three hundred beds, not to mention spittoons and various floors. The thermometer said it was ninety-eight; an optimist would have guessed twenty degrees more. There was no wind; the sun had set among heavy, ill-fated yellow-black clouds, and a storm was expected to break before daylight. I thought that I was entitled to a short rest, and had just settled down on a chair in the linen room (I hadn’t slept in a bed for over a week; the sight of a bedstead hurt my feelings and blurred my eyes) when the manager roused me.

He hadn’t heard from either Johns Hopkins or the Mayos yet, but, unable to contain himself, he had picked that trying evening as the right time to engage in a little super-bedmaking research. I remonstrated, but to no use. He had spied an emaciated mail clerk in a trance-like sleep who was due to be awakened within eight minutes; this was an ideal man to practise upon. Armed with fresh linen, we stealthily approached the guinea pig. Because of the terrific heat he slept without covers, a fact which made the manager frown; it made the experiment too easy and robbed it of much of its zest. I managed to remove the sheet underneath the scrawny little form, and was working on the pillowcase while the manager took notes and timed me. Suddenly, like a released steel spring, the mail clerk vaulted out of bed and struck me in the mouth, breaking one of my most outstanding teeth. ‘Help, help! Robbers, robbers!’ he yelled, and hit me again, this time in the eye. An avalanche of brakemen, firemen, and hostlers, all in dishabille, overran me, and lynching was the favored topic when the manager, who had crawled under the bed at the first blow, reappeared and tried to explain things. He had a hard task before him, but thanks to his glibness and to the fact that the mail clerk’s purse and watch were found intact in the pillow slip, he succeeded in saving my life — not until I had been pummeled unmercifully, however.

Somehow I made my way back to the linen room. My body was too sore now to find rest on a chair, so I sank down on the floor. Even then I was denied any measure of comfort and peace. Whether it was the abnormal atmospheric pressure or the violent tumult in the dormitory that had released hitherto unknown hordes of fleas, I’m not equipped to say. What matters is that they all seemed intent on venting their irritation upon me. I sprayed liquids, dusted powders, scratched and damned — all of which merely got their dander up and egged them on. Keeping moving seemed to shatter somewhat the force of their attacks, and so I returned to the bedmaking. Reeling and only half conscious from fatigue and flea bites, I was determined to keep going until death intervened and threw in the towel, when a messenger from downstairs notified me that the cat had been sick on the lobby floor and I was wanted badly with a mop. This bulletin made me see red. I staggered down, set upon seeking oblivion in the desert and, if necessary, killing the manager, the cat, or whatsoever stood in my way.

The little lobby was crowded with people. A passenger train had just arrived and disgorged a full train crew, four marines guarding I he United States mail, and a passenger, a bewildered lady who, suffering from train sickness, had broken her journey to seek relief.

‘I’m afraid the cat—’ began the manager, genially.

‘The hell with the cat, an’ you, too!’ I shouted. ‘I’m through!’

‘Why, my good man, you can’t quit. We must arrange for these people,’ he said anxiously, pointing at the crowd.

‘You arrange for them. I’m through for good,’ I said, and turned around to walk out.

‘What’s the matter? Don’t you feel well?’ the manager asked, and held me back.

Weltschmerz is the matter,’ I said ferociously, and, rolling up my shirt sleeves, I displayed the ugly welts and discolorations the fleas were responsible for.

The lady took one rapid look, then winced and said brokenly, ‘May I cancel my registration? Storm or no storm, I believe I’d rather spend the night outside on one of the benches.’

The next few moments were the tensest that I have ever lived through. The storm was gathering headway. Mean gusts of wind shook the building and heavy claps of thunder drowned out the slam of the door as the brave little woman departed; then sand began to seep in through the window screens, making a ghastly sound that nicked everybody’s nerves. The manager, deadly pale with rage, his most sacred feelings hurt by my uncouth pun and rude demonstration which had made a customer flee his beloved hostelry, clutched at my throat and raved, ‘You brute, go up at once and arrange for these people! Do you understand orders when you hear them, or shall we have to teach you?’

‘Yeah,’ growled the corporal of the marines, ‘an’ make it snappy, monk! We are tired an’ want a place to sleep in. After us you can tend to the cat.’

Bent upon going down fighting, I looked around to size up the situation. A livestock freight which had been held up by the passenger train was pulling out. In the restaurant someone coughed meaningly. It was Lena, the night waitress, half Piute and half apostatic Mormon, whose mongrel ancestry, unsullied soul, and pockmarked face made her one with any underdog. She nodded encouragingly and pointed at Soy, the Chinese fry cook, who poised an iron skillet close to an opened fuse box on the wall. I understood. I clenched my fists, and as Soy hit the fuses with the skillet, short-circuiting the electric current and plunging the whole house and the station platform into darkness, I swung in the direction where the Eton ought to be, seeking revenge for myself, the Cornishman, and the two vagrants. The Morphean tinker went down and to sleep most systematically. A Zion-sent flash of lightning enabled me to make another bull’s-eye, this time on the corporal of marines who had called me ‘monk.’ A veritable bedlam broke out. Everybody attacked everybody else, brakemen’s clubs and marines’ rifle butts were swung, furniture was turned over and smashed to the accompaniment of Soy’s Cantonese cackling laughter and Lena’s shrill cries of ‘Make the freight, kid! Make the freight! Quick, quick!’

I didn’t hesitate. Leaving my suspenders in someone’s fist, I crashed through the screen door, head foremost, and ran for the train. A yard bull heard the commotion and fired in my direction. Nothing could stop me then. Better to be crushed beneath a nice, clean cattle car or shot than to be eaten alive by vermin and be making beds. The train was running fast, perhaps twenty-five miles an hour, but I leapt at it, intuitively, and succeeded in grasping something substantial. The impact stunned me, yet I held on until I had recovered my senses sufficiently to be able to break open a gate and tumble inside on to something soft and bleating.

The car was loaded to capacity with sheep. They tried to find a place for me; and, thankful for their consideration, I squeezed in among them on the strawcovered floor. Soon rams began to butt me in an inquiring manner; lambs nuzzled me playfully; a motherly old ewe whisked her tail in my face in the friendly staccato manner peculiar to sheep; and when the ‘ clickety-click, clicketyclick’ of the wheels began to sound like ‘no-place-like-home, no-place-like-home’ I buried my bruised, tired head in her wool, happy at the thought of finding solace among kindred souls whose bodies rested unhampered of man-made appurtenances and Satan-sold schemes.