Hunting a Job in the Wicked City
THE BEST FROM THE CURRENT MAGAZINES
IT takes a writer like Eugene Wood to give the proper touch to the experience of the country lad who sets out from Johnnycake Corners to seek his fortune in the great city. This he does in the American Magazine.
You pack your trunk and start for The Wicked City to make your fortune or your living. Your mother doesn’t go to the depot with you, but she bids you goodby at home, and puts her arms around you, and kisses you, and tries to smile through her tears. And, for the first block or so, you don’t say much. It’s as much as ever you can make out to utter: “I can carry that, pa.” Your mouth feels sticky, and your throat hurts. And your father buys your ticket all the way to The Wicked City, and asks Mr. Morton, the ticket agent, when it’ll get you in, and if No. 4’s on time. And when the train does come, and the tumult and the shouting of “ ’Bus to the American House!” and “Eagle Hotel right this way,” and “Oh, there she is! Oo-hoo! Wave your hand at her! Here we are!” and the kissing begins, your father tells Johnny Mara, the passenger conductor, that you’re going with him, and for him bo kind o’ keep a look-out for you, and any favors shown you would be appreciated, and so on. (It makes you feel green for him to say that. You’re a man. You can take care of yourself.) And Johnny Mara nods his head, and never gives you another thought, and just as he is about to holler “All aboard !” the telegraph operator runs out with an order for him from the train
despatcher, and that gives you a little more time to wait. So you hoist the window and talk through that to your daddy about nothing in particular. Neither of you knows what to say. But your daddy sees the conductor coming back from the telegraph office, and he finds the courage or me desperation to blurt out: “Well, good-by, my son. Good luck to you. Don’t get discouraged. Keep a stiff upper lip. Let us hear from you every week. We’ll be so anxious to know how you make out.” He gives your hand a sharp pinch, and says in a queer, choked-up voice, “Be a good boy,” and his mouth kind of trembles, and his eyes begin to blink. “A good boy. God bless you!” and he has to cough as if something got in his throat. And the train moves out, and you wave your hand at him for a little while and then sit down. But he stands and watches the train till after it goes out of sight behind the soap factory. Yes, he stands and watches the sky till the last faint tinge of smoke from the locomotive that drags you from home has faded. And if you could see him walk away, you’d see he was a good deal older than he was half an hour ago. It’ll be lonesome at the supper table to-night, lots lonesomer than it was when you were going to college. . . . Kind of a nice old party, your daddy, in some ways. Course, he isn’t the same to you that your mother is, but he means well. He was pretty near boo-hooing right out; he was for a fact. Just because you were going to The Wicked City to “accept a situation”—if you could find one to accept.
The Wicked City was joyously approached on your first visit; you hunched the train along in your eagerness to be there. But that was a visit. This time it’s do or die. This time it’s a groundhog case with you. There is a cold sinking inside of you below the waistband. You swallow a good deal. On your first visit—don’t you remember?—you walked through a parkiet with thin green grass in it, and lots of flowers, and a fountain squirting, and big, fine buildings all around it, bigger than the courthouse, yes, ten times bigger than the courthouse and the jail put together. Splendid buildings. Knock your eye out. Cost a terrible lot of money. They just slathered it on so’s to show it cost a lot of money.
But the buildings were not big enough to overshadow the pitiful, bloodless men that listlesslv sat upon the benches. They were not splendid enough to quench the squalor of those whose blood and tears had stuck the piled-up stones together. The money slathered on them could not talk loud enough to out-shout .the accusing poverty of the wretches who sat there, so many dogs without a master, a master to kick, perhaps, but also a master to mve one a bone to gnaw sometimes. The Wicked City has money to throw to the birds; it has men to throw to the birds, too, such buzzards as choose to pick at them. Nobody cares, not even the wretches themselves. All that worries them now is where thev can vet the price of a drink, and the “free lunch” that ones with the drink. But in each, some mother kissed her bov, and put her arms around him. and wished him the best of luck, and tried to smile through her tears: some father gave his hand a sharp pinch and blurted out, “God hle^s vnu, mv son.” with lips that trembled. These all had mothers who had been proud of them, and fathers who wanted to he nroud of them. Thev were all going to he Pomebody. And now look at them ! Thev had even cot past carina. Not all of them, though. One voung fellow—don’t you remember fhat'fellow? Just about your a.ae he must have been, such a nice face he had, but so thin and peaked-looking, that was staring ahead of him, and all of a sudden he put his hands up to his face an^ muttered: “0 God!” I suppose he tried
everywhere and couldn’t get a job, and his money was all gone, and. . . .
Oh, well. No use “supposing that was you.” It couldn’t be you. You’d catch on somehow. It might go kind o’ hard at first but you’d get there. You’d work at anything — “Yeh-heh-heh-hes!” you laughed bitterly to yourself, “it’ll have to be ‘anything.’ ” When you struck him for the job the man would ask you, “What can you do?” and you’d answer him, ’’Anything.” (It wouldn’t do to say: “Why, nothing acceptably.”) Anything, it wouldn’t make any difference what, so long as the tail end of the week had a pay envelope tied to it. Well, perhaps not “anything” either. The line had to be drawn somewhere. You had not then attained to high finance as it is exemplified in the vaudeville conversation: “What would you do for à million dollars?” “I’m ashamed to tell you.”
Well, you don’t know what you can do till you try. You were willing to try ‘most anything from being a bank president on down. Anything. Nothing in particular that you know of. Why didn’t you find out, before this, what you were best adapted for, what sort of work there was for you in life that would be no work at all, it would be such a delight to do it? They didn’t find that out for you at college ; what they did there was to cause you to make for the nth time in history a limber-legged translation of second-rate verses advertising wine, written by Quintus Horatius Flaccus, who didn’t amount to a hill of beans two thousand years ago, and less every year since; what they did was to take you up into an exceeding high mountain of mathematics, when you couldn’t foot a column of figures accurately or take 35 out of a dollar without pencil and paper; they instructed you in Marriotte’s Law, who could not tie a knot except a hard knot and a bow knot; they gave you 85 for a term-standing in Christian Evidences who couldn’t tell quarters from eighths on a foot rule. What were you good for? Who knew? Not you.
There was a fellow once . . . Say, it was you, wasn’t it? Didn’t you tell me one time that when you landed in The Wicked City, and had two dollars left after you paid a week’s board in advance, end for hauling your trunk up from the depot, you gave a phrenologist a dollar
and a half of it to feel of your bumps, and tell you what you were qualified for? Not you? Well, who was it then? Some friend of mine. Told me that for a positive fact. Said it was a stand-off which needed the dollar and half the worst, he or the professor. Well, it came out all right, anyhow. The very day the landlady was going to throw him out if he didn’t pay up, he fell over a job packing coffins in a coffin factory, and helping out with the books after the old man had showed him which was debit side and which was credit side. He was a cracker jack at ”AN with the optative mood but he didn’t know B from bull’s foot about debit and credit, and he never did get it clear in his mind why, when you take in money, it should be put on the debit side of the cash book. Aw, that was you. Don’t try to lie out of it. Well, if it wasn’t you, who was it?
The phrenologist never opened his trap about the fellow’s qualifications for packing coffins, but it was something that tied the pay envelope to the tail end of the week. It isn’t what you’re qualified to do; it’s what you can get to do.
Fifty cents left, a week’s board paid, alone in The Wicked City, and no job. There’s a dramatic situation for you. Not a comedy situation, though; not at all. Six of these fifty cents went for evening papers, one of them foolishly squandered on the late edition which didn’t have any more “HELP Wanted—Male” than the earlier edition. There were some fine editorials in that paper if you only knew it, beautifully written articles about the Tariff Question, and the Gold Reserve, and one commending the governor of the State for his spat with the boss who had put him in the job, but you never even looked at them. You missed it. And there was a dandy in the second column. I forget the title, but it was all about the Right of the Citizen to Work for Less than he can Live on.
It’s lonesome in The Wicked City evenings when you don’t know a soul, and are a little homesick, and the meals (at the boarding-house where the tablecloth has gravy spots and rings on it printed from the bottoms of coffee cups) don’t sit very well, and you have only forty-four cents and no job. The different-colored lights, green, and red, and blue, and white, wink out and in again, and revolve
and wiggle, and spell out words, letter by letter; the crowds surge on from under the old-fashioned arc lights, tinged with violet, into under the new-fashioned arc lights with a sunset glow. They’re happy. Anybody with a job is happy. They’re going to the opera where one chair for one evening costs more than you’d be glad to get for six, long, dull, dreary, driven days. They’re going to the theatre to indulge in the luxury of tears at faked sorrows when life is lousy with real sorrows. They’re going to 'the vaudeville to laugh till their stomachs hurt them. They’re going to the moving-picture shows to see the crowd chase the fellow and fall into the water with a mighty splash. And you—you stand there lonesome, out of it, out of it completely. Forty-four cents in your pocket and no job. A girl comes up and says “H’lo!” but you never turn your head, never let on you hear her.
It’s lonesome. It’s bright, and gay, and noisy, and there are lots of people .out, people who don’t care whether you live or die—who’d a little rather you died, for your hunting a job makes it just that much harder for them to keep theirs. And presently they are gone, and won’t reappear until after the first act. It gets lonesomer than ever. The mechanical piano outside the moving-picture show keeps banging away. Forty-four cents . . .
Oh, well, what’s the odds? You’ve got to
do something to pass the time.....
And now it’s only thirty-nine cents. Thirty-nine cents and three days more at the boarding-house, and then. . . . You
walk through the parkiet where the fellows are that can’t get a job, that have given up trying, that don’t care any more. They sit there and drowse, swinging a foot to make the copper think they’re awake. It’s wicked to sleep out of doors, and beat the poor landlord out of his constitutional rights to charge you more for a bed than it costs him. They can put you in jail for that, the same as if you stole. They’ve got newspapers wrapped around them, the bums have, and are sitting on newspapers.
It’s cold out of doors at night with nothing over you but— What is it our old friend Q. Horatius Flaccus says? “Sub frígido Jove?” A chilly proposition.
When it comes really bitter weather— But pshaw! They don’t mind that:
they’re used to it. Sometimes they have to walk the streets five nights hand-running to keep from freezing to death, fellows that have got to be fifty years old, working at their trades, and then are let go because they aren’t as spry as they used to be. You see, they’ve never learned how to take care of themselves like a real hobo does, and it goes pretty hard with them. But they get used to it. They get so they don’t mind it—much.
But it would be kind of tough if you or I had to do that way. You see, we had mothers who tucked us in, and asked us: “Now, are you sure you’ve got enough cover?” We couldn’t stand it to lose five nights’ sleep hand-running. Why, it breaks us all up to lose one night’s sleep. And five ! Sooner than that. . . . All you’ve got to do, you know, is to walk down to the street-end where the pier is, and say, “Here goes nothing!” and that ends it, unless you know how to swin, and then it must prolong the agony some. But you could buy something at the drug store with that thirty-nine cents, you whom a mother bore with agony that was soon forgotten for joy that a man-child was come into the world, you whose hand a father held in parting, and pinched sharply as he said, “God bless you, my son,” with lips that trembled. . . .
But say! The Wicked City at night when the show lets out is splendid, isn’t it? The ladies coming out of the operahouse, with their jewels snapping fire at you, and their delicate-tinted wraps, and the man bawling out “TWO . . . .
FORTY . . * . . THREE-ee-ee !” for
their carriages to take them home or to the swell restaurants of whose glories you catch a glimpse through the doors held open to let them enter. The money paid for one portion of food, to say nothing of the wines, would keep you alive for a
week.....But we will not go into
Let’s talk of something more to the point. Did you ever try selling books on subscription? You remember that fellow Croy that was in our class up to the spring term of the Sophomore year? He was studying to be a minister. Earnest fellow he was. Fine voice, tall, strong as an ox, eyes that looked right through you. Got a lot of fellows to go up to the mourners’ bench that winter. He was the crack man
of the Philomathean Literary Society. The summer after his freshman year he went out and sold “The Royal Path of Life,” and did pretty well. Made enough to keep him till the end of the winter term, and he thought he’d go out during the Easter vacation and sell a few books and then come back and take up trigonometry, and botany, and Gorgias, and the wine advertisements of Quintus Horatius Flaccus and the other things you have to learn before you can point the way to another and a better world. He went out, I say, to sell a few books, and—he never came back. It was so much an easier living than preaching for four hundred a year at Canal Winchester, Sunday mornings, and Sinking Springs and Mount Pleasant alternate Sunday evenings, that he never came back.
You know, if I had a boy and wanted him to be a real success in life, an outand-out financial success, I’d never send him to college; I’d put him at being a book agent. Some crack up traveling with an Indian Sagwa Remedy Company, and others claim that nowhere else can you learn the essentials of business success so well as in the ticket-wagon of a circus where you get callouses in between your fingers from pinching dollar bills out of the Reubens’ change. But I stick up for the book-agent’s profession. There’s nothing like it to develop gall; nothing. Absolutely. If you’ve got gall, you don’t need anything else to make a success in life. “Merit?” Oh, your grandmother! What’s merit without gall? No good. And you can’t have both.
You make some money in a half-hearted way selling books. You happen to strike some poor defenseless cusses on their blind side. But you hate it. You begin late and quit early. Some days you cannot force yourself to do it. There’s no one to hear you recite and mark you 85 per cent.; no one to go along with you and show you how; no one to stand over you and make you do it. There’s where we touch the nerve pulp. Right there.
And so, when you fall over the job of packing coffins in the coffin factory and helping with the books after the old fellow with the white ear muffs shows you which is debit side and which is credit side, even though it is only five-fifty per— the old man thinks he was mighty
“s’rood” to get a packer and a bookkeeper combined for only five-fifty per, when he expected to have to pay six dollars anyhow—even though the hours are long and the work has not a spark of interest, and not a ghost of a show for you to get ahead, when you fall over it, you clutch it with a death grip. You’re all right now; you’ve got a job. And you write home to the folks that you have “accepted a situation.” Your mother is so glad that she could jump for joy. A woman likes to see the money come in regularly, even if it is a much smaller sum. But your father sighs. He didn’t want to see you stick at book-selling, but he was in hopes that some of the blood of savage chiefs of long ago might crop out in you, the blood of those old, brave fellows who were never in bondage to any man, who would have died rather than dirty their hands and souls with labor. There are descendants of these extant now. men who cannot stand it to be bossed, who count it a shame rather than something to brag of, that you have been in the employ of one firm twenty-eight years, come the sixteenth of next July, without a raise of wages and with the certainty that some day they’ll give you the sack when you’re too old to work. The elect love to scheme and match their wits against others’. They’ve all sold books one time or other. They’ve all done about two weeks at productive labor, and had sworn a vow never to do another lick of honest toil the longest day they live. They wear good clothes; they have informed palates as to delicate cookery and wines; in their waistcoat pocket they carry a lump of twentv-dollar bills as big as a prayerbook, bills" folded lengthwise and then across. And they have more money salted away. Selling books is all right as far as it goes, fifty or sixty per cent, commission is all right. But it’s so slow! They want quicker action. It’s just as easy to get it in bucketfuls as it is in spoonfuls. Easier. They land in Big Business. Legitimate? Well; it’s as legitimate as any, they say. And if you maintain that there are some businesses that are legitimate—on the dead now— they look at you out of the corner of their eyes, and tell you to come out of it ; you’re in a trance.
Well, you have vour job in the coffin factory, and you’re all right. It’s a good, steady job—till you get fired. You’ll play
pussy-wants-a-corner with many another job before you land in one that is really congenial to you—if you ever do get one like that. Dodging from one to the other, there will be moments when you have an almosts pleasant titillation, an imitation of the fear that you might have to wrap newspapers ’round you in the parkiet, and learn to sing hymns and hold up your right hand, when the weather gets severe.
How long the time seems, to look back over it, that you worked in the coffin factory ! How short it really was. The friends you made in that cheap mechanics’ boarding-house, who didn’t know B from bull’s foot about the particle ”AN and the optative mood, how much you learned from them! There’s nothing to be looked for from the boss; all he cares for you is what he can get out of you, and, conversely, all you caro for him and his work is what you can get out of ’em.
But there are times when there’s got to be help, and it comes from those who can worst afford it:
Not as a ladder from earth to heaven, not as an altar to any creed,
But simple service, simply given, to his own kind in their common need.
A dollar bill was as much to those poor boys as a thousand dollars is to the crowd you train with now. But they came across with it. And they didn’t say: “It might be me like that some day.” No; they just came across with it, that’s all. What else could a bloke do Others had come across for them when they were up against it good and hard, and they have to pass it on. And where are they now? They were only mechanics, and" so they’re dead before their time, or bughouse from overwork and underfeeding, or they’re in the almhouse.
What a cruel, barbarous, thoughtless, wasteful, unorganized, higgledy-piggledy way to do ! Truly did Prexy call it “the arener of life,” where boys, our boys, whom mothers bore in deathly agony, whom fathers bade farewell to with a sharp pinch of the hand and “Don’t get discouraged,” and “God bless you !” spoken with trembling lips, our sons, for whom we rise up early and so late take rest, for whom we plan so much and hope so much, are thrown to the Hons, with only their bare and untaught hands to fend for them!