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During the year 1890, and perhaps a little before that, I had been getting my first clear notions of what it was I wanted to do in life. There was one man who was writing on one of the Chicago papers, the Daily News,—Eugene Field, no less—whose work interested me greatly. For two years and more I had been reading "Sharps and Flats," a column which he wrote daily, and through this—the varied phases of life he suggested in a humorous, romantic way—I was beginning to understand that I wanted to write. Nothing else that I had read so far—books, plays, poems, histories—gave me quite the same feeling for constructive thought; for the subject of his daily notes, poems and aphorisms was Chicago and America, whereas nearly all the others dealt or concerned themselves with foreign lands.
But this local life, these trenchant bits on local street scenes, institutions, characters, functions all moved me as nothing hitherto had. For to me Chicago at this time had a peculiarly literary or artistic atmosphere. It is given to some cities, as to some lands, to suggest romance, and to me Chicago did that daily and hourly. It sang, or seemed to, and in spite of what I deemed my various troubles I was singing with it. These seemingly drear neighborhoods through which I walked each day, these somewhat ponderous regions of huge homes where new-wealthy packers and manufacturers dwelt, these curiously congested foreign neighborhoods of almost all nationalities, and lastly that great downtown area (surrounded on two sides by the river, on the east by the lake, and on the southbyrailroad yards and railroad stations, and set with these new tall buildings, the wonder of the western world) fascinated me. Chicago was so young, so blithe, I thought. Florence in its best days must have been something like this to young Florentines, or Venice to the young Venetians.
Here was a city which had no traditions but which was making them, and this was the very thing which everyone seemed to understand and rejoice in. Chicago was like no other city in the world,—so said they all; Chicago would outstrip every other American city, New York included, and be the first of all American if not all European or world cities. This dream many hundreds of thousands of its citizens held dear. Chicago would be first in wealth, first in beauty, first in art achievement. At this very time a great world's fair was being planned which would bring citizens from all over the world to see it. The Auditorium, the new Great Northern, the amazing (for its day) Masonic Temple—in sum, a score of public institutions—depots, theatres and the like—were being constructed. It was something wonderful, quite inspiring indeed, to see a world metropolis spring up under your eyes, and this was what was occurring here.
Nosing about the city in an inquiring way as I was and dreaming half-formed dreams of one and another thing I would like to do, it finally occurred to me that I might like to write of these things, if I could. I would like to describe a place like Goose Island, in the Chicago River, which, neglected and covered with shanties made of upturned boats sawed in two, seemed the height of the picturesque; a building like the Auditorium or the Masonic Temple, that vast wall of masonry, twenty-two stories high and then truly the largest building in the world; a seething pit like that of the Board of Trade, which I had once visited and which astonished and fascinated me as much as anything ever had. That roaring, yelling, screaming whirlpool of life. And then the lake with its pure white sails, the Chicago River with its tall grain elevators and black coal pockets, the great railroad yards covering miles and miles of space with their cars. How wonderful it all was! As I walked from place to place collecting, I used to improvise strange, vaguely formulated word-hashes or rhapsodies—free verse I suppose we would call it now—which concerned everything and nothing, but somehow expressed the seething poetry of my soul. Indeed, I was crazy with life—a little demented or frenzied with romance and hope. I wanted to sing, to eat, to dance, to love. My word-dreams or maunderings concerned my day, my age, poverty, hope, beauty, which I mouthed to myself, chanting them aloud at times. Sometimes, because I had heard the Reverend Frank W. Gunsaulus and his like spout rocket-like sputterings on the subjects of life and religion, I would orate, pleading great causes of one kind and another as I went. I imagined myself a great orator, thousands of people before me, my gestures and enunciation and thoughts perfect, poetic, and all my hearers moved to tears or demonstrations of wild delight. Some of these things I committed to paper, scarcely knowing what they were, and in a fever for advancement bundled them up and sent them to Eugene Field, at his house. In his column and elsewhere I had read how great geniuses were occasionally discovered by some chance composition or work noted by some one in authority. Although I waited for a time with great interest, but no vast depression, to see what my fate would be, no word came, and in time I forgot them and came to realize that they must have been very bad and were dropped into the nearest wastebasket. This did not give me pause or grieve me. I seethed to express myself. I bubbled. I dreamed. And I had a singing feeling, now that I had done this much, that someday I should write for sure and be very famous into the bargain.
But how? How? That was the great question, and to this I saw no immediate answer. My feeling was that I ought to get into newspaper work, and yet this was so nebulous that I thought it would never come to pass. I saw mentions in the papers, daily, of reporters calling to find out this or being sent to do that, and so the idea of being a reporter and being sent to write up something was gradually formulated in my mind, though how I was to get such a place I had not the slightest idea. Again, it occurred to me that, perhaps, reporters needed a special training of some kind, or that they had to begin as clerks behind the counter in the business office of papers—which made me very sombre, for those glowing business offices that I saw throughout the city here and there always seemed so far removed from anything to which I could aspire. Most of them—the great ones—were ornate, floreate, with onyx or chalcedony wall trimming, flambeaus of bronze or copper on the walls, lights in imitation of mother-of-pearl in the ceilings—in short, all the gorgeousness of the Sultan's court brought to the outer counters where people subscribed or paid for advertisements. Because the newspapers were always dealing with signs and wonders—great functions, great commercial schemes, great tragedies and pleasures—I began to conceive of them as wonderlands in which all concerned were prosperous and happy. Indeed, so brilliant did this seem—they and the newspaper world, as I thought of it—that I imagined if I could once get in it—if such a thing were possible—that I would be the happiest person imaginable. I painted reporters and newspapermen generally as receiving fabulous salaries, being sent on the most urgent, interesting and distingué missions. I think I confused, inextricably, reporters with ambassadors and prominent men generally. Their lives were laid among great people—the rich, the famous, the powerful—and because of their position and facility of expression and mental force they were received everywhere as equals. Think of me, new, young, poor, being received that way. How marvellous that would be. As a matter of fact this idea, once I had it, haunted me as a way out, the next step, if I made any at all; and I had begun to ponder even before I had left Mr. Midgely of the Lovell Manufacturing Company how I was to get into it, if at all, and when.
Imagine my intense delight and interest one day therefore when, scanning the "help wanted—male" columns of the Chicago Herald these pre-holiday hours, I encountered an advertisement which ran (in substance):
"Wanted. By the Chicago Herald a number of bright young men to assist in the business department during the Christmas holidays. Promotion possible. Apply to Business Manager between 9 and 10 a.m."
"Here," I said, as I read it, "is just the thing I am looking for. Here is this great paper, one of the most prosperous in Chicago, giving an opening to striplings like myself. Now if I can just get this, my fortune is made. I will rise rapidly. I will write wonderful things."
Therefore, I conceived of myself as already being sent on some brilliant mission and returning, somehow, covered with glory. I hurried to the office of the Herald, which was in Washington Street near Fifth Avenue, this same morning, and requested to see the business manager. After a few minutes' waiting I was permitted to enter the sanctuary of this great person, who, because of the material splendor of the front office (one of those onyx and bronze affairs I have described), seemed to me the equal of a millionaire at least. He was tall, graceful, dark, his full black whiskers parted aristocratically in the middle of his chin, his eyes vague pools of subtlety. His hair was curly and he seemed to breathe of a select social atmosphere only. "See what a wonderful thing it is to be connected with the newspaper business," I said to myself, and then, "I saw your ad in this morning's paper."
"Yes, I did want a half-dozen young men," he replied, beaming on me reassuringly. "I think I have nearly enough. Most of the young men who come here imagine that they are to be connected with the Herald directly. Now, as a matter of fact, it is not exactly that, though this may lead to something a little later. The Herald is conducting a free Christmas gift bureau this year, and we need a few young men with intelligence and discrimination to act as clerks. They have to decide whether the applicants are imposters or not and keep people from imposing on the paper. The business here is in need of one or two bright young men, and after the holidays are over we propose to select these from the young men who are employed now. We will give the others the first chance afterward, provided they prove worthy. This work will only be for a week or ten days, but you will probably earn as much as ten or twelve dollars in that time." (My heart sank.) "After the first of the year, if you take it, you may come around and see me and I may have something for you." When he spoke of the Herald's free Christmas gift bureau I vaguely understood what he wanted. For weeks past the Herald had been conducting a campaign for free Christmas presents for the poorest children. It had been importuning the rich and the moderately comfortable to give through the medium of its scheme, which was a bureau for the free distribution of all such things as could be gathered via cash or direct donation of supplies,—toys, clothing, even food for children. How successful its efforts had been I had no idea, but this call for help seemed to indicate an interesting experience.
"But I wanted eventually to become a reporter if I could," I suggested.
"Well," he said, with a wave of his hand, "this is as good a way to begin as any other. When this is over I may be able to introduce you to our city editor."
It was far from what I anticipated, but I took it joyfully. Thus to step from one job into another, however brief—and one with such prospects—seemed the greatest luck in the world. For by now I believe that I was actually hypochondriacal on the subject of poverty, loneliness, the want of the creature comforts and pleasures of life. The mere thought of having enough to eat and to wear and to do had something of paradise about it. Those long, fruitless searches for work which had previously afflicted me had marked me with a kind of horror of them. So I bustled about to the Herald Christmas Annex, as it was called—a building standing in Fifth Avenue between Madison and Monroe—and reported to a brisk underling who was in charge of the work of doling out these pittances to the poor. He put me behind the single long counter which ran across the front of the room and over which were handed all those toys and Christmas pleasure pieces which a loud tom-toming concerning the dire need of the poor and the proper Christmas spirit had produced.
Life certainly offers some amusing paradoxes at times, and with the best intentions in the world apparently, and with that gay insouciance which life alone can formulate and display when it is at its worst. Here was I, as I soon found, a victim of what socialists would look upon as economic error, almost as worthy of free gifts as any other, and yet lined up with fifteen or twenty other economic victims—as poorly off as myself—all out of a job, many of them almost out at elbows. All had taken this work in the face of a cheerless Christmas and to tide themselves over a very bitter period, and all of them were doling out Christmas gifts from eight-thirty in the morning until eleven and twelve at night, for the noble sum of ten or twelve dollars, and that to people who were not as bad off as, certainly no worse off than, they were themselves.
I wish you might have seen this chamber as I saw it for eight or nine days just preceding and including Christmas day itself. Yes, we worked Christmas day from eight a.m. to five-thirty p.m., no less, and very glad to get the money, thank you. There poured in here from the day the bureau opened, which was the morning I called, and until it closed Christmas night, as fine a line of alleged poverty-stricken souls as one would want to see. I am not saying that many of them were not deserving. As a matter of fact, I am willing to believe that most of them were—or that, deserving or no, dire poverty or not, they were still worthy of all they received here. Indeed, when I think that many of them, old women, old men, young women, young men, children, came miles, walking or riding, carrying slips of paper on which was listed all they desired Santa Claus to bring them, and that for all their pains in getting their minister or their doctor or the Herald itself to visé their request, they only secured a fraction of what they sought, I am inclined to think that all were even more deserving than their reward indicated.
For in the first place, the whole scheme, as I soon found in talking with others and seeing how it worked, was most badly gotten up. Endless varieties of toys and comforts had been talked about in the paper, but only a few of all the things promised—or vaguely indicated—were here to be had. In the next place, no sensible system of checking up either the gifts given or the persons who had received them had been devised. That is, the same person could come over and over and over on different days, bearing different lists of toys, and get them apparently, or a part of them at least, until some clerk with a better eye for faces than another would chance to recognize the offender and point him or her out. Jews—the fox-like Slavic type—and the poor Irish were the worst offenders in this respect.
Again, the same family could send one child after another, the parents having come singly first, until quite a number of trashy toys must surely have been collected. Again, the Herald itself, which was supposed to have kept all the applications for toys written by children to Santa Claus, had not done so, or the applications had come so numerously that it had been thought inadvisable or impossible to even attempt to sort out those of the needy from those of the greedy or frivoling or well-to-do. At any rate, hundreds claimed that they had written a letter and received no answer, or that they had received an answer and lost it. At the end of the second or third day before Christmas it was found necessary, because of the confusion and uncertainty, to throw the doors wide open and give to all and sundry who looked worthy—we haphazard, picked-up clerks being the judges.
In the face of this, the clerks themselves, seeing that no records were kept and how without plan the whole thing was, notified poor relations and friends, who descended on us with baskets, expecting candy, turkeys, suits and the like, but getting only toy wagons, tin toy stoves, baby brooms, Noah's Arks, storybooks and the like—the shabbiest mess of cheap things one could imagine. For the newspaper, true to that canon of commerce which demands the most for the least, the greatest show for the least money, had gathered all the odds and ends and leftovers of toy bargain sales and had dumped them into the large lofts above higgledy-piggledy, to be doled out as best we could. A sensible division of suitable things, family for family, was therefore impossible. We could not give a much desired thing to one person now because we could not get at it or find it. A little later, another person having applied and a lot of the same toys having been uncovered somewhere, he or she would be supplied. The whole thing in many of its phases was pathetic, ridiculous, asinine. And we clerks ourselves, going out to lunch or dinner (save the mark!) and having no time to travel the long distance to our respective homes, would seek some scrubby little one-horse restaurant and eat ham and beans or crullers and coffee or some other tasteless dish at ten or fifteen cents per head. Hard luck stories, comments on the mess and botch and failure the whole thing was, comments on the strange characters that showed up,—the hooded Niobes, the dusty Priams with eyes too sunken and too dry for tears—were the order of the day. I met a man who was a newspaperman, young, gloomy, out at elbows, who told me what a wretched, pathetic struggle the newspaper world itself presented, but I did not believe him. He had worked in Chicago, Denver, St. Paul. "A poor failure," I said. "Some one who can't write and who now whines or who wastes his subsistence in riotous living when he has it!" So much for the sympathy of the poor for the poor.
But the Herald was doing very well, at that. Daily it was filling its pages with the splendid results of its charity, the poor relieved, darkling homes restored to gayety and bliss. Can you beat it? But it was good advertising, and that was all the Herald wanted, and that was what it got.
Hey, Rub-a-dub! dub! Hey, Rub-a-dub! dub!
It was Christmas Eve, while I was still working for the Herald, that there came to our house to spend the next two days, which chanced to be Friday and Saturday, a Miss Lois Zahn, a friend and fellow clerk of my sister Claire's in one of the largest department stores in the city. Because this store kept open until ten-thirty or eleven at Christmas time and my task detained me until the same hour, we arrived at the house at nearly the same time, I a little later than the others.
For some reason by now—possibly because I was giving so much evidence of commercial activity in one way and another and bustling out evenings, when I had the opportunity, to see a young Scotch girl, Nellie Anderson, whom no member of the family as yet had seen, and because I was taking myself and my ambitions in a lofty spirit, talking of what I proposed to do in the future—I think my sister Claire for once had conceived rather highly of me—to the extent, for instance, of wanting me to meet her friends and join in on such social matters as she for the moment was interested in. At any rate, on this particular evening as I entered and was hurrying up the stairs to take a bath and then see what if any pleasures were being arranged for the morrow, I was intercepted by her with a "Hurry up and come down, won't you. I have a friend here—Miss Zahn—and I want you to meet her. She's awful nice."
At the mere thought of meeting a girl I brightened, for my thoughts were always on the other sex, and I was forever complaining to myself of my lack of opportunity and of courage, when I had opportunity, to do the one thing I most craved to do—make love. Although, at her suggestion of a girl, I pretended to sniff and be superior, yet I bustled to the task of embellishing myself, hoping intensely that she would prove to be pretty and that I would be attractive to her. Imagine my satisfaction then, on walking into the general living room on the parlor floor where a fire was burning in the one fireplace which the house possessed, to see a really pretty, dark-haired girl of medium height, smooth-cheeked and graceful. She seemed and really was guileless, cheerful, good-natured—a little stationery clerk, in so far as position in this world was concerned—and in her head, as I came to know, was nothing but innocent, colorful dreams of a remote, affectional supremacy which boded no ill to any one in the world. For quite a little while after meeting her I felt stiff and awkward, I am sure, for the mere presence of so pretty a girl in so close proximity to me was always sufficient to make me nervous and self-conscious. Yet from the look and manner of her, I read at once that I was at least not objectionable and that she was prone to make friends with me for my sister's sake. Ed, as I learned, had gone off early in the evening to join the family of some girl in whom he was interested. A1 was out on some Christmas Eve lark with a group of fellow employes. The elder members of the family had disposed of themselves in ways and places which I have now forgotten. So here I was alone with Claire and this stranger, and doing my best to appear gallant and clever.
I recall now the sense of affinity and welcome which I felt for this girl from the start,—the sense of sympathy and interest. It must have been clear to my sister, for before the night was over she had explained, by way of tantalizing me I presume, that Miss Zahn had a beau. She herself referred to a banjo club to which she belonged and to a group of young men and women friends who lived in her vicinity and who came in and went out on the same trains mornings and evenings and who had organized among themselves various social proceedings by which they managed to brighten otherwise cheerless days and evenings. Later I learned that Lois was an orphan adopted by a fairly comfortable Irish couple who loved her dearly and gave her as many pleasures and as much liberty as their circumstances would permit, but who had made the mistake of letting her know, some years before, that she was only an adopted child—which gave her a sense of forlornness, I think, and a longing for close enduring love.
Such a mild and innocently vain and sweet little thing as she was. I never came across a more attractive or clinging temperament. She could play, as I soon learned, on both the banjo and guitar, for finding these instruments in this room where they always stood, she took first one and then the other and played a little. I remember marvelling at the dexterity and prettiness of her fingers as they raced up and down the frets and across the strings. Again, she had on a dark green blouse and brown corduroy skirt, with a pale brown bow about her neck to match, and her hair was parted on one side, man-fashion, giving her a sort of maidenish masculinity. I thought she was delightful. Better yet, I found her looking at me slyly now and then and smiling sweetly at some remark of mine as though she were pleased. I recounted the nature of the work I was doing, but confused it in her mind and my sister's with the idea that I was now regularly employed by the Herald as a newspaper man and that this was merely a side task. Subsequently, out of sheer vanity and a desire to appear more than I was, I let her believe that I was a reporter on this same paper, when I was not, of course.
One of the charms of the evening was that it was snowing and the ground was white. Outside we could see great flakes fluttering about the gas lamps. Across the street in a small cottage a large party of merrymakers was at play. Laughter was in the air, for people were coming from and going to places visiting their friends. Someone, I or Claire, proposed that we go out and get chestnuts and popcorn and roast them, and that we make snow punch out of milk, sugar and snow.
How gay I felt—how inspirited, hopeful. In a fit of great daring I took one hand of each of my companions and ran, trying to slide them over the snow. I remember that Miss Zahn's screams and laughter seemed disturbingly musical to me and that as she ran her little feet seemed fairly to twinkle under her skirts. She stopped at one corner where the nearest streetcar was and where all the stores, because it was Christmas Eve, were still brightly lighted, and did a little dance under the electric light that swung there, proving to me how charmingly graceful she was.
"Oh, if I could just have a girl like her—if I could just have her," I thought, forgetting for the moment that I was nightly, or nearly so, telling Nellie Anderson that she was the sweetest thing I had ever known or wanted to know.
At last bedtime came, with nothing save laughter and gayety up to the last moment. She was to sleep with my sister and preceded me upstairs, saying she was going to eat salt New Year's Eve in order to dream of her coming lover. That night I lay and thought of her, and the next morning hurried downstairs hoping to find her up before me, but she was not. There were Christmas stockings to be examined, which brought her, but before eight-thirty I had to be going in order to work this day from nine on. I remember waving them all a gay farewell and looking forward eagerly toward evening, for she was to remain this night and the next day.
That night I came home at five, and then it was—between then and seven—that I learned that she cared for me. When I arrived, dressed, as I had been all day, in my very best, Ed and Al were there endeavoring to entertain her, Ed to make love to her. His method was to press her toe in an open foolish way, which seemed to me at the time the height of dullness and lack of personal sensitiveness. Claire was there and some of the elder members of the family. I was offered candy and punch, and some game was played. I believe we had a Ouija board and tried to obtain spirit messages.
I fancied from the moment I entered that Lois had been waiting for me. She smiled at me so winningly and sat still sometimes when I was near, gazing romantically into the fire. Like those birds of plumage that strut before the females in the mating season, I posed about, Romeo-wise, lost, as I wished to seem, in moody gloom. At this date it is not possible to recall the trend of the conversation or what it was that drew us together. No matter. We were so drawn.
During this evening I watched her, again admiring every detail of her dress, which was somewhat different from that of the day before and even more attractive. She seemed infinitely sweet, and I persuaded her to play, flattering myself that I was preferred over my brothers who were present. What they said or how they acted, I have forgotten. I recall that after a time, we two being left together for some reason, she arose once and went into the large front room which looked out on the street through three large windows, standing and looking out in silence on the pretty homelike scene which our neighborhood presented. The snowing had stopped and a full moon was brightening everything. The little cottages and flat-buildings about glowed romantically through their drawn blinds, a red-ribboned Christmas wreath in every window. I recall pumping up my courage to a rather unusual point for me and, heart in mouth, following her and standing beside her.
She pressed her nose to the pane and then breathed on it, making a misty screen between her and the outside. Finally she inquired my initials and then, writing them, rubbed them out with her fingers and then, breathing on the window again, wrote her own. Still no clear memory of what was said—just that she turned and looked up at me, then down. Her face was like a wax flower in the moonlight—a moon flower. I had drawn so close, moved by her romantic call, that my body almost touched hers. I had just slipped my arm about her waist and was about to kiss her when I heard my sister's voice:
"Now, Lois and Theo, you come back."
"We must go," she said shamefacedly, and as she started I ventured to touch her hand, quite pleadingly. She looked at me, smiled and went on, and I waited, eager for other solitary moments.
There was no other opportunity this same evening,—the festivities were too general and inclusive—but the next morning, church claiming some and sleep others, there was a half-hour or more when I was with her alone in the front room, looking over the family album! And the family Bible! By now she had quite captured my fancy. I realized also that she was as drawn to me as I to her and that, as in the case of Nellie, I was master if I so chose to be. I was so wrought-up in the face of cold opportunity, however, that I scarcely had the courage to do that which I sincerely believed l could do. As we stood over the album looking at the pictures, I toyed first with the strings of an apron she had put on in which to help my sisters, and then later, finding no opposition manifested, allowed my hand to rest ever so lightly at her back. Still no sign of opposition or even consciousness. I thrilled from head to toe.
Then I closed my arm gently about her waist, and when it became noticeably tight she looked up and smiled. "You'd better watch out," she said. "Some one may come."
"Do you like me a little?" I pleaded, almost choking.
"I think so," she said. "I think you're very nice, anyhow."
I tried to kiss her cheek.
"You mustn't," she said. "Some one may come," and then, as I drew her to me, pretended to resist, but maneuvered her cheek against my mouth and pulled away.
She was just in time too, for my sister came in the back parlor almost unheralded, saying, "Oh, there you are. I wondered where you had gone to."
"I was just looking at your album," she said.
"Yes," I added, ambling out, as red as a beet, I presume. "I was just showing it to her."
"Oh, yes," laughed my sister cynically. "You and Lois—I know what you two were trying to do. You!" she exclaimed to me, pushing me. "And Lois, the silly. She has a beau already. You'd better look out."
She laughed and went off, but I was hugely satisfied with myself. Beau or no beau, Lois belonged to me. Youthful vanity over any feminine conquest was swelling my chest. I was always more of a personage, it seemed to me, for having it proved to me that I was not unattractive to girls—pretty girls—and Lois was certainly one.
|Theodore Dreiser in the early 1890s||686|
|Eugene Field, 1893||687|
|Joseph B. McCullagh||688|
|John Paul Dreiser||689|