A City Note-Book (New York) by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Well, now let us see in what respect we are richer to-day than we were yesterday.

Coming down Fifth Avenue on top of a bus, we saw a man absorbed in a book. Ha, we thought, here is our chance to see how bus reading compares to subway reading! After some manoeuvering, we managed to get the seat behind the victim. The volume was “Every Man a King,” by Orison Swett Marden, and the uncrowned monarch reading it was busy with the thirteenth chapter, to wit: “Thoughts Radiate as Influence.” We did a little radiating of our own, and it seemed to reach him, for presently he grew uneasy, put the volume carefully away in a brief-case, and (as far as we could see) struck out toward his kingdom, which apparently lay on the north shore of Forty-second Street.

We felt then that we would recuperate by glancing at a little literature. So we made our way toward the newly enlarged shrine of James F. Drake on Fortieth Street. Here we encountered our friends the two Messrs. Drake, junior, and complimented them on their thews and sinews, these two gentlemen having recently, unaided, succeeded in moving a half-ton safe, filled with the treasures of Elizabethan literature, into the new sanctum. Here, where formerly sped the nimble fingers of M. Tappe’s young ladies, busy with the compilation of engaging bonnets for the fair, now stand upon wine-dark shelves the rich gold and amber of fine bindings. We were moved by this sight. We said in our heart, we will erect a small madrigal upon this theme, entitled: “Song Upon Certain Songbirds of the Elizabethan Age Now Garnishing the Chamber Erstwhile Bright With the Stuffed Plumage of the Milliner.” To the Messrs. Drake we mentioned the interesting letter of Mr. J. Acton Lomax in yesterday’s Tribune, which called attention to the fact that the poem at the end of “Through the Looking Glass” is an acrostic giving the name of the original Alice–viz., Alice Pleasance Liddell. In return for which we were shown a copy of the first edition of “Alice in Wonderland.” Here, too, we dallied for some time over a first edition of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, and were pleased to learn that the great doctor was no more infallible in proofreading than the rest of us, one of our hosts pointing out to us a curious error by which some words beginning in COV had slipped in ahead of words beginning in COU.

* * * * *

At noon to-day we climbed on a Riverside Drive bus at Seventy-ninth Street and rode in the mellow gold of autumn up to Broadway and 168th. Serene, gilded weather; sunshine as soft and tawny as candlelight, genial at midday as the glow of an open fire in spite of the sharpness of the early morning. Battleships lay in the river with rippling flags. Men in flannels were playing tennis on the courts below Grant’s Tomb; everywhere was a convincing appearance of comfort and prosperity. The beauty of the children, the good clothing of everybody, canes swinging on the pavements, cheerful faces untroubled by thought, the warm benevolence of sunlight, bronzing trees along Riverside Park, a man reading a book on the summit of that rounded knoll of rock near Eighty-fourth Street which children call “Mount Tom”–everything was so bright in life and vigour that the sentence seems to need no verb. Joan of Arc, poised on horseback against her screen of dark cedars, held her sword clearly against the pale sky. Amazingly sure and strong and established seem the rich facades of Riverside Drive apartment houses, and the landlords were rolling in limousines up to Claremont to have lunch. One small apartment house, near Eighty-third or thereabouts, has been renamed the Chateau-Thierry.

After crossing the long bridge above Claremont and the deep ravine where ships and ferryboats and coal stations abound, the bus crosses on 135th Street to Broadway. At 153d, the beautiful cemetery of Trinity Parish, leafy paths lying peaceful in the strong glow. At 166th Street is an open area now called Mitchel Square, with an outcrop of rock polished by the rearward breeks of many sliding urchins. Some children were playing on that small summit with a toy parachute made of light paper and a pebble attached by threads. On 168th Street alongside the big armoury of the Twenty-second Engineers boys were playing baseball, with a rubber ball, pitching it so that the batter received it on the bounce and struck it with his fist. According to the score chalked on the pavement the “Bronx Browns” and the “Haven Athletics” were just finishing a rousing contest, in which the former were victors, 1-0. Haven Avenue, near by, is a happy little street perched high above the river. A small terraced garden with fading flowers looks across the Hudson to the woody Palisades. Modest apartment houses are built high on enormous buttresses, over the steep scarp of the hillside. Through cellar windows coal was visible, piled high in the bins; children were trooping home for dinner; a fine taint of frying onions hung in the shining air. Everywhere in that open, half-suburban, comfortable region was a feeling of sane, established life. An old man with a white beard was greeted by two urchins, who ran up and kissed him heartily as he beamed upon them. Grandpa, one supposes! Plenty of signs indicating small apartments to rent, four and five rooms. And down that upper slant of Broadway, as the bus bumbles past rows of neat prosperous-seeming shops, one feels the great tug and pulling current of life that flows down the channel, the strange energy of the huge city lying below. The tide was momentarily stilled, but soon to resume action. There was a magic touch apparent, like the stillness of a palace in a fairy tale, bewitched into waiting silence.

See also  Machine-Made Men by Eliot Gregory

* * * * *

Sometimes on our way to the office in the morning we stop in front of a jeweller’s window near Maiden Lane and watch a neat little elderly gentleman daintily setting out his employer’s gauds and trinkets for the day. We like to see him brood cheerfully over the disposition of his small amber-coloured velvet mats, and the arrangement of the rings, vanity cases, necklaces, and precious stones. They twinkle in the morning light, and he leans downward in the window, innocently displaying the widening parting on his pink scalp. He purses his lips in a silent whistle as he cons his shining trifles and varies his plan of display every day.

Now a modern realist (we have a painful suspicion) if he were describing this pleasant man would deal rather roughly with him. You know exactly how it would be done. He would be a weary, saddened, shabby figure: his conscientious attention to the jewels in his care would be construed as the painful and creaking routine of a victim of commercial greed; a bitter irony would be distilled from the contrast of his own modest station in life and the huge value of the lucid crystals and carbons under his hands. His hands–ah, the realist would angrily see some brutal pathos or unconscious naughtiness in the crook of the old mottled fingers. How that widening parting in the gray head would be gloated upon. It would be very easy to do, and it would be (if we are any judge) wholly false.

For we have watched the little old gentleman many times, and we have quite an affection for him. We see him as one perfectly happy in the tidy and careful round of his tasks; and when his tenderly brushed gray poll leans above his treasures, and he gently devises new patterns by which the emeralds or the gold cigarette cases will catch the slant of 9 o’clock sunlight, we seem to see one who is enjoying his own placid conception of beauty, and who is not a figure of pity or reproach, but one of decent honour and excellent fidelity.

* * * * *

One of our colleagues, a lusty genial in respect of tobacco, has told us of a magnificent way to remove an evil and noisome taste from an old pipe that hath been smoked overlong. He says, clean the bowl carefully (not removing the cake) and wash tenderly in fair, warm water. Then, he says, take a teaspoonful of the finest vatted Scotch whiskey (or, if the pipe be of exceeding size, a tablespoonful of the same) and pour it delicately into the bowl. Apply a lighted match, and let the liquor burn itself out. It will do so, he avouches, with a gentle blue flame of great beauty and serenity. The action of this burning elixir, he maintains, operates to sizzle and purge away all impurity from the antique incrustation in the bowl. After letting the pipe cool, and then filling it with a favourite blend of mingled Virginia, Perique, and Latakia, our friend asserts that he is blessed with a cool, saporous, and enchanting fumigation which is so fragrant that even his wife has remarked upon it in terms complimentary. Our friend says (but we fear he draws the longbow nigh unto fracture) that the success of this method may be tested so: if one lives, as he does, in the upward stories of a tall apartment house, one should take the pipe so cleansed to the window-sill, and, smoking it heartily, lean outward over the sill. On a clear, still, blue evening, the air being not too gusty, the vapours will disperse and eddy over the street; and he maintains with great zeal that passersby ten tiers below will very soon look upward from the pavement, sniffingly, to discern the source of such admirable fumes. He has even known them, he announces, to hail him from the street, in tones of eager inquiry, to learn what kind of tobacco he is smoking.

All this we have duly meditated and find ourselves considerably stirred. Now there is only one thing that stands between ourself and such an experiment.

* * * * *

There are some who hold by the theory that on visiting a restaurant it is well to pick out a table that is already cleared rather than one still bearing the debris of a previous patron’s meal. We offer convincing proof to the contrary.

See also  Mystifications by John Brown

Rambling, vacant of mind and guileless of intent, in a certain quiet portion of the city–and it is no use for you, O client, to ask where, for our secrecy is firm as granite–we came upon an eating house and turned inward. There were tables spread with snowy cloths, immaculate; there were also tables littered with dishes. We chose one of the latter, for a waiter was removing the plates, and we thought that by sitting there we would get prompter service. We sat down and our eye fell upon a large china cup that had been used by the preceding luncher. In the bottom of that cup was a little pool of dark dregs, a rich purple colour, most agreeable to gaze upon. Happy possibilities were opened to our mind. Like the fabled Captain X, we had a Big Idea. We made no outcry, nor did we show our emotion, but when the waiter asked for our order we said, calmly: “Sausages and some of the red wine.” He was equally calm and uttered no comment.

Soon he came back (having conferred, as we could see out of the wing of our eye) with his boss. “What was it you ordered?” he said.

“Sausages,” we replied, urbanely, “and some of the red wine.”

“I don’t remember having served you before,” he said. “I can’t give you anything like that.”

We saw that we must win his confidence and we thought rapidly. “It’s perfectly all right,” we said. “Mr. Bennett” (we said, seizing the first name that came into our head), “who comes here every day, told me about it. You know Mr. Bennett; he works over on Forty-second Street and comes here right along.”

Again he departed, but returned anon with smiling visage. “If you’re a friend of Mr. Bennett’s,” he said, “it’s all right. You know, we have to be careful.”

“Quite right,” we said; “be wary.” And we laid hand firmly on the fine hemorrhage of the grape.

A little later in the adventure, when we were asked what dessert we would have, we found stewed rhubarb on the menu, and very fine stewed rhubarb it was; wherefore we say that our time was not ill-spent and we shall keep the secret to ourself.

But we can’t help feeling grateful to Mr. Bennett, whoever he is.

* * * * *

Occasionally (but not often) in the exciting plexus of our affairs (conducted, as we try to persuade ourself, with so judicious a jointure of caution and hilarity) we find it necessary to remain in town for dinner. Then, and particularly in spring evenings, we are moved and exhilarated by that spectacle that never loses its enchantment, the golden beauty and glamour of downtown New York after the homeward ebb has left the streets quiet and lonely. By six o’clock in a May sunset the office is a cloister of delicious peace and solitude. Let us suppose (oh, a case merely hypothetic) that you have got to attend a dinner somewhere in the Forties, say at half-past seven; and it is requisite that evening clothes should be worn. You have brought them to the office, modestly hidden, in a bag; and in that almost unbelievable privacy, toward half-past six, you have an enjoyable half hour of luxurious amusement and contemplation. The office, one repeats, is completely stripped of tenants–save perhaps an occasional grumbling sortie by the veteran janitor. So all its resources are open for you to use as boudoir. Now, in an office situated like this there is, at sunset time, a variety of scenic richness to be contemplated. From the President’s office (putting on one’s hard-boiled shirt) one can look down upon St. Paul’s churchyard, lying a pool of pale blue shadow in the rising dusk. From the City Room (inserting studs) one sees the river sheeted with light. From the office of the Literary Editor (lacing up one’s shoes) one may study the wild pinnacle of Woolworth, faintly superfused with a brightness of gold and pink. From the office of one of our dramatic critics the view is negligible (being but a hardy brick wall), but the critic, debonair creature, has a small mirror of his own, so there one manages the ticklish business of the cravat. And from our own kennel, where are transacted the last touches (transfer of pipe, tobacco, matches, Long Island railroad timetable, commutation ticket, etc., to the other pockets) there is a heavenly purview of those tall cliffs of lower Broadway, nobly terraced into the soft, translucent sky. In that exquisite clarity and sharpness of New York’s evening light are a loveliness and a gallantry hardly to be endured. At seven o’clock of a May evening it is poetry unspeakable. O magnificent city (one says), there will come a day when others will worship and celebrate your mystery; and when not one of them will know or care how much I loved you. But these words, obscure and perishable, I leave you as a testimony that I also understood.

See also  The Key Ring by Christopher Morley

She cannot be merely the cruel Babel they like to describe her: the sunset light would not gild her so tenderly.

* * * * *

It was a great relief to us yesterday evening to see a man reading a book in the subway. We have undergone so many embarrassments trying to make out the titles of the books the ladies read, without running afoul of the Traveller’s Aid Society, that we heaved a sigh of relief and proceeded to stalk our quarry with a light heart. Let us explain that on a crowded train it is not such an easy task. You see your victim at the other end of the car. First you have to buffet your way until you get next to him. Then, just as you think you are in a position to do a little careful snooping, he innocently shifts the book to the other hand. This means you have got to navigate, somehow, toward the hang-handle on the other side of him. Very well. By the time the train gets to Bowling Green we have seen that it is a fattish book, bound in green cloth, and the author’s name begins with FRAN. That doesn’t help much. As the train roars under the river you manage, by leanings and twistings, to see the publisher’s name–in this case, Longmans. At Borough Hall a number of passengers get out, and the hunted reader sits down. Ten to one he will hold the book in such a way that you cannot see the title. At Nevins Street you get a seat beside him. At Atlantic Avenue, as he is getting off, you propose your head over his shoulder in the jam on the stairs and see what you are after. “Lychgate Hall,” by M.E. Francis. And in this case, success left us none the wiser.

Atlantic Avenue, by the way, always seems to us an ideal place for the beginning of a detective story. (Speaking of that, a very jolly article in this month’s Bookman, called “How Old Is Sherlock Holmes?” has revived our old ambition to own a complete set of all the Sherlock Holmes tales, and we are going to set about scouring the town for them). Every time we pass through the Atlantic Avenue maelstrom, which is twelve times a week, we see, as plain as print, the beginning of two magazine tales.

One begins as the passengers are streaming through the gate toward the 5:27 train. There is a very beautiful damsel who always sits on the left-hand side of the next to last car, by an open window. On her plump and comely white hand, which holds the latest issue of a motion picture magazine, is a sparkling diamond ring. Suddenly all the lights in the train go out. Through the open window comes a brutal grasp which wrenches the bauble from her finger. There are screams, etc., etc. When the lights go on again, of course there is no sign of the criminal. Five minutes later, Mr. Geoffrey Dartmouth, enjoying a chocolate ice cream soda in the little soft-drink alcove at the corner of the station, is astonished to find a gold ring, the stone missing, at the bottom of his paper soda container.

The second story begins on the Atlantic Avenue platform of the Lexington Avenue subway. It is 9 A.M., and a crowded train is pulling out. Just before the train leaves a young man steps off one of the cars, leaving behind him (though not at once noticed) a rattan suitcase. This young man disappears in the usual fashion, viz., by mingling with the crowd. When the train gets to the end of the run the unclaimed suitcase is opened, and found to contain–continued on page 186.

* * * * *

Every now and then we take a stroll up Irving Place. It is changing slowly, but it still has much of the flavour that Arthur Maurice had in mind when he christened It “the heart of O. Henry land.” Number 55, the solid, bleached brownstone house where O. Henry once lived, is still there: it seems to be some sort of ecclesiastical rendezvous, if one may judge by the letters C.H.A. on the screen and the pointed carving of the doorway. Number 53, next door, always interests us greatly: the windows give a glimpse of the most extraordinary number of cages of canaries.

The old German theatre seems to have changed its language: the boards speak now in Yiddish. The chiropractor and psycho-analyst has invaded the Place, as may be seen by a sign on the eastern side. O. Henry would surely have told a yarn about him if he had been there fifteen years ago. There are still quite a number of the old brown houses, with their iron railings and little patches of grass. The chocolate factory still diffuses its pleasant candied whiff. At noontime the street is full of the high-spirited pupils of the Washington Irving High School. As for the Irving house itself, it is getting a new coat of paint. The big corset works, we dare say, has come since O. Henry’s time. We had quite an adventure there once. We can’t remember how it came about, but for some reason or other we went to that building to see the chief engineer. All we can remember about it was that he had been at sea at one time, and we went to see him on some maritime errand. We found that he and his family lived in a comfortable apartment on the roof of the factory, and we remember making our way, with a good many blushes, through several hundred or thousand young ladies who were industriously working away at their employer’s business and who seemed to us to be giggling more than necessary. After a good deal of hunting we found our way to a secret stair and reached our seafaring engineer of the corset factory in his eyrie, where (we remember) there were oil paintings of ships on the walls and his children played about on the roof as though on the deck of a vessel.

See also  No. 032 [from The Spectator] by Richard Steele

Irving Place is also very rich in interesting little shops–laundries, tailors, carpenters, stationers, and a pleasant bookshop. It is a haunt of hand-organ men. The cool tavern at the corner of Eighteenth, where Con Delaney tended the bar in the days when O. Henry visited it, is there still. All along the little byway is a calm, genteel, domestic mood, in spite of the encroachments of factories and apartment houses. There are window boxes with flowers, and a sort of dim suffusion of conscious literary feeling. One has a suspicion that in all those upper rooms are people writing short stories. “Want to see a freak?” asks the young man in the bookshop as we are looking over his counters. We do, of course, and follow his animated gesture. Across the street comes a plump young woman, in a very short skirt of a violent blue, with a thick mane of bobbed hair, carrying her hat in her hand. She looks rather comfortable and seemly to us, but something about her infuriates the bookseller. He is quite Freudian in his indignation that any young woman should habit herself so. We wonder what the psycho-analyst a few blocks below would say about it. And walking a few paces further, one comes upon the green twitter, the tended walks and pink geranium beds of Gramercy Park.

* * * * *

There is no time when we need spiritual support so much as when we are having our hair cut, for indeed it is the only time when we are ever thoroughly and entirely Bored. But having found a good-natured barber who said he would not mind our reading a book while he was shearing, we went through with it. The ideal book to read at such a time (we offer you this advice, brave friends) is the “Tao” of Lao-Tse, that ancient and admirable Chinese sage. (Dwight Goddard’s translation is very agreeable.) “The Tao,” as of course you know, is generally translated The Way, i.e., the Way of Life of the Reasonable Man.

Lao-Tse, we assert, is the ideal author to read while the barber is at his business. He answers every inquiry that will be made, and all you have to do is hold the book up and point to your favourite marked passages.

When the barber says, genially, “Well, have you done your Christmas shopping yet?” we raise the book and point to this maxim:

Taciturnity is natural to man.

When he says, “How about a nice little shampoo this morning?” we are prompt to indicate:

The wise man attends to the inner
significance of things and does not
concern himself with outward appearances.

When, as we sit in the chair, we see (in the mirror before us) the lovely reflection of the beautiful manicure lady, and she arches her eyebrows at us to convey the intimation that we ought to have our hands attended to, old Lao-Tse is ready with the answer. We reassure ourself with his remark:

Though he be surrounded with sights that
are magnificent, the wise man will remain
calm and unconcerned.

When the shine boy offers to burnish our shoes, we call his attention to:

He who closes his mouth and shuts his sense
gates will be free from trouble to the end of life.

When the barber suggests that if we were now to have a liberal douche of bay rum sprayed over our poll it would be a glittering consummation of his task, we show him the words:

If one tries to improve a thing, he mars it.

And when (finally) the irritated tonsor suggests that if we don’t wait so long next time before getting our hair cut we will not be humiliated by our condition, we exhibit Lao-Tse’s aphorism:

The wise man is inaccessible to favour or hate;
he cannot be reached by profit or injury; he
cannot be honoured or humiliated.

“It’s very easy,” says the barber as we pay our check; “just drop in here once a month and we’ll fix you up.” And we point to:

See also  The Lassoed Bear

The wise man lives in the world, but he lives
cautiously, dealing with the world cautiously.
Many things that appear easy are full of difficulties.

To a lot of people who are in a mortal scurry and excitement what is so maddening as the calm and unruffled serenity of a dignified philosopher who gazes unperturbed upon their pangs? So did we meditate when facing the deliberate and mild tranquillity of the priestly person presiding over the bulletin board announcing the arrival of trains at the Pennsylvania Station. It was in that desperate and curious limbo known as the “exit concourse,” where baffled creatures wait to meet others arriving on trains and maledict the architect who so planned matters that the passengers arrive on two sides at once, so that one stands grievously in the middle slewing his eyes to one side and another in a kind of vertigo, attempting to con both exits. We cannot go into this matter in full (when, indeed, will we find enough white paper and enough energy to discuss anything in full, in the way, perhaps, Henry James would have blanketed it?), but we will explain that we were waiting to meet someone, someone we had never seen, someone of the opposite sex and colour, in short, that rare and desirable creature a cook, imported from another city, and she had missed her train, and all we knew was her first name and that she would wear a “brown turban.” After prowling distraitly round the station (and a large station it is) and asking every likely person if her name was Amanda, and being frowned upon and suspected as a black slaver, and thinking we felt on our neck the heated breath and handcuffs of the Travellers’ Aid Society, we decided that Amanda must have missed her train and concluded to wait for the next. Then it was, to return to our thesis, that we had occasion to observe and feel in our own person the wretched pangs of one in despair facing the gentle–shall we say hesychastic?–peace and benevolent quietness of the man at the bulletin board. Bombarded with questions by the impatient and anxious crowd, with what pacific good nature he answered our doubts and querulities. And yet how irritating was his calmness, his deliberation, the very placidity of his mien as he surveyed his clacking telautograph and leisurely took out his schoolroom eraser, rubbed off an inscription, then polished the board with a cloth, then looked for a piece of chalk and wrote in a fine curly hand some notation about a train from Cincinnati in which we were not at all interested. Ah, here we are at last! Train from Philadelphia! Arriving on track Number–; no, wrong again! He only change 5 minutes late to 10 minutes late. The crowd mutters and fumes. The telautograph begins to stutter and we gaze at it feverishly. It stops again and our dominie looks at it calmly. He taps it gently with his finger. We wonder, is it out of order? Perhaps that train is already coming in and he doesn’t know it, and Amanda may be wandering lost somewhere in the vast vistas of the station looking for us. Shall we dash up to the waiting room and have another look? But Amanda does not know the station, and there are so many places where benches are put, and she might think one of those was the waiting room that had been mentioned. And then there is this Daylight Saving time mix-up. In a sudden panic we cannot figure out whether Philadelphia time is an hour ahead of New York time or an hour behind. We told Amanda to take the one o’clock from Philadelphia. Well, should she arrive here at two o’clock or at four? It being now 5:10 by our time, what are we to do? The telautograph clicks. The priestly person slowly and gravely writes down that the Philadelphia train is arriving on Track 6. There is a mad rush: everyone dashes to the gate. And here, coming up the stairs, is a coloured lady whose anxiously speculating eye must be the one we seek. In the mutuality of our worry we recognize each other at once. We seize her in triumph; in fact, we could have embraced her. All our anguish is past. Amanda is ours!

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *