A Nation In A Hurry by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

In early days of steam navigation on the Mississippi, the river captains, it is said, had the playful habit, when pressed for time or enjoying a “spurt” with a rival, of running their engines with a darky seated on the safety-valve.

One’s first home impression after a season of lazy Continental travelling and visiting in somnolent English country houses, is that an emblematical Ethiopian should be quartered on our national arms.

Zola tells us in Nouvelle Campagne that his vivid impressions are all received during the first twenty-four hours in a new surrounding,-the mind, like a photographic film, quickly losing its sensibility.

This fleeting receptiveness makes returning Americans painfully conscious of nerves in the home atmosphere, and the headlong pace at which our compatriots are living.

The habit of laying such faults to the climate is but a poor excuse. Our grandparents and their parents lived peaceful lives beneath these same skies, undisturbed by the morbid influences that are supposed to key us to such a painful concert pitch.

There was an Indian summer languor in the air as we steamed up the bay last October, that apparently invited repose; yet no sooner had we set foot on our native dock, and taken one good whiff of home air, than all our acquired calm disappeared. People who ten days before would have sat (at a journey’s end) contentedly in a waiting-room, while their luggage was being sorted by leisurely officials, now hustle nervously about, nagging the custom-house officers and egging on the porters, as though the saving of the next half hour were the prime object of existence.

Considering how extravagant we Americans are in other ways it seems curious that we should be so economical of time! It was useless to struggle against the current, however, or to attempt to hold one’s self back. Before ten minutes on shore had passed, the old, familiar, unpleasant sensation of being in a hurry took possession of me! It was irresistible and all-pervading; from the movements of the crowds in the streets to the whistle of the harbor tugs, everything breathed of haste. The very dogs had apparently no time to loiter, but scurried about as though late for their engagements.

The transit from dock to hotel was like a visit to a new circle in the Inferno, where trains rumble eternally overhead, and cable cars glide and block around a pale-faced throng of the damned, who are forced, in expiation of their sins, to hasten forever toward an unreachable goal.

A curious curse has fallen upon our people; an “influence” is at work which forces us to attempt in an hour just twice as much as can be accomplished in sixty minutes. “Do as well as you can,” whispers the “influence,” “but do it quickly!” That motto might be engraved upon the fronts of our homes and business buildings.

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It is on account of this new standard that rapidity in a transaction on the Street is appreciated more than correctness of detail. A broker to-day will take more credit for having received and executed an order for Chicago and returned an answer within six minutes, than for any amount of careful work. The order may have been ill executed and the details mixed, but there will have been celerity of execution to boast of

The young man who expects to succeed in business to-day must be a “hustler,” have a snap-shot style in conversation, patronize rapid transit vehicles, understand shorthand, and eat at “breathless breakfasts.”

Being taken recently to one of these establishments for “quick lunch,” as I believe the correct phrase is, to eat buckwheat cakes (and very good they were), I had an opportunity of studying the ways of the modern time-saving young man.

It is his habit upon entering to dash for the bill-of-fare, and give an order (if he is adroit enough to catch one of the maids on the fly) before removing either coat or hat. At least fifteen seconds may be economized in this way. Once seated, the luncher falls to on anything at hand; bread, cold slaw, crackers, or catsup. When the dish ordered arrives, he gets his fork into it as it appears over his shoulder, and has cleaned the plate before the sauce makes its appearance, so that is eaten by itself or with bread.

Cups of coffee or tea go down in two swallows. Little piles of cakes are cut in quarters and disappear in four mouthfuls, much after the fashion of children down the ogre’s throat in the mechanical toy, mastication being either a lost art or considered a foolish waste of energy.

A really accomplished luncher can assimilate his last quarter of cakes, wiggle into his coat, and pay his check at the desk at the same moment. The next, he is down the block in pursuit of a receding trolley.

To any one fresh from the Continent, where the entire machinery of trade comes to a standstill from eleven to one o’clock, that déjeuner may be taken in somnolent tranquillity, the nervous tension pervading a restaurant here is prodigious, and what is worse-catching! During recent visits to the business centres of our city, I find that the idea of eating is repugnant. It seems to be wrong to waste time on anything so unproductive. Last week a friend offered me a “luncheon tablet” from a box on his desk. “It’s as good as a meal,” he said, “and so much more expeditious!”

The proprietor of one down-town restaurant has the stock quotations exhibited on a black-board at the end of his room; in this way his patrons can keep in touch with the “Street” as they hurriedly stoke up.

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A parlor car, toward a journey’s end, is another excellent place to observe our native ways. Coming from Washington the other day my fellow-passengers began to show signs of restlessness near Newark. Books and papers were thrown aside; a general “uprising, unveiling” followed, accompanied by our objectionable custom of having our clothes brushed in each other’s faces. By the time Jersey City appeared on the horizon, every man, woman, and child in that car was jammed, baggage in hand, into the stuffy little passage which precedes the entrance, swaying and staggering about while the train backed and delayed.

The explanation of this is quite simple. The “influence” was at work, preventing those people from acting like other civilized mortals, and remaining seated until their train had come to a standstill.

Being fresh from the “other side,” and retaining some of my acquired calm, I sat in my chair! The surprise on the faces of the other passengers warned me, however, that it would not be safe to carry this pose too far. The porter, puzzled by the unaccustomed sight, touched me kindly on the shoulder, and asked if I “felt sick”! So now, to avoid all affectation of superiority, I struggled into my great-coat, regardless of eighty degrees temperature in the car, and meekly joined the standing army of martyrs, to hurry, scampering with them from the still-moving car to the boat, and on to the trolley before the craft had been moored to its landing pier.

In Paris, on taking an omnibus, you are given a number and the right to the first vacant seat. When the places in a “bus” are all occupied it receives no further occupants. Imagine a traction line attempting such a reform here! There would be a riot, and the conductors hanged to the nearest trolley-poles in an hour!

To prevent a citizen from crowding into an over-full vehicle, and stamping on its occupants in the process, would be to infringe one of his dearest privileges, not to mention his chance of riding free.

A small boy of my acquaintance tells me he rarely finds it necessary to pay in a New York car. The conductors are too hurried and too preoccupied pocketing their share of the receipts to keep count. “When he passes, I just look blank!” remarked the ingenious youth.

Of all the individuals, however, in the community, our idle class suffer the most acutely from lack of time, though, like Charles Lamb’s gentleman, they have all there is.

From the moment a man of leisure, or his wife, wakens in the morning until they drop into a fitful slumber at night, their day is an agitated chase. No matter where or when you meet them, they are always on the wing.

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“Am I late again?” gasped a thin little woman to me the other evening, as she hurried into the drawing-room, where she had kept her guests and dinner waiting. “I’ve been so driven all day, I’m a wreck!” A glance at her hatchet-faced husband revealed the fact that he, too, was chasing after a stray half-hour lost somewhere in his youth. His color and most of his hair had gone in its pursuit, while his hands had acquired a twitch, as though urging on a tired steed.

Go and ask that lady for a cup of tea at twilight; ten to one she will receive you with her hat on, explaining that she has not had time to take it off since breakfast. If she writes to you, her notes are signed, “In great haste,” or “In a tearing hurry.” She is out of her house by half-past eight on most mornings, yet when calling she sits on the edge of her chair, and assures you that she has not a moment to stay, “has only run in,” etc.

Just what drives her so hard is a mystery, for beyond a vague charity meeting or two and some calls, she accomplishes little. Although wealthy and childless, with no cares and few worries, she succumbs to nervous prostration every two or three years, “from overwork.”

Listen to a compatriot’s account of his European trip! He will certainly tell you how short the ocean crossing was, giving hours and minutes with zest, as though he had got ahead of Father Time in a transaction. Then follows a list of the many countries seen during his tour.

I know a lady lying ill to-day because she would hurry herself and her children, in six weeks last summer, through a Continental tour that should have occupied three months. She had no particular reason for hurrying; indeed, she got ahead of her schedule, and had to wait in Paris for the steamer; a detail, however, that in no way diminished madame’s pleasure in having done so much during her holiday. This same lady deplores lack of leisure hours, yet if she finds by her engagement book that there is a free week ahead, she will run to Washington or Lakewood, “for a change,” or organize a party to Florida.

To realize how our upper ten scramble through existence, one must also contrast their fidgety way of feeding with the bovine calm in which a German absorbs his nourishment and the hours Italians can pass over their meals; an American dinner party affords us the opportunity.

There is an impression that the fashion for quickly served dinners came to us from England. If this is true (which I doubt; it fits too nicely with our temperament to have been imported), we owe H.R.H. a debt of gratitude, for nothing is so tiresome as too many courses needlessly prolonged.

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Like all converts, however, we are too zealous. From oysters to fruit, dinners now are a breathless steeplechase, during which we take our viand hedges and champagne ditches at a dead run, with conversation pushed at much the same speed. To be silent would be to imply that one was not having a good time, so we rattle and gobble on toward the finger-bowl winning-post, only to find that rest is not there!

As the hostess pilots the ladies away to the drawing-room, she whispers to her spouse, “You won’t smoke long, will you?” So we are mulcted in the enjoyment of even that last resource of weary humanity, the cigar, and are hustled away from that and our coffee, only to find that our appearance is a signal for a general move.

One of the older ladies rises; the next moment the whole circle, like a flock of frightened birds, are up and off, crowding each other in the hallway, calling for their carriages, and confusing the unfortunate servants, who are trying to help them into their cloaks and overshoes.

Bearing in mind that the guests come as late as they dare, without being absolutely uncivil, that dinners are served as rapidly as is physically possible, and that the circle breaks up as soon as the meal ends, one asks one’s self in wonder why, if a dinner party is such a bore that it has to be scrambled through, co�te que co�te, we continue to dine out?

It is within the bounds of possibility that people may have reasons for hurrying through their days, and that dining out à la longue becomes a weariness.

The one place, however, where you might expect to find people reposeful and calm is at the theatre. The labor of the day is then over; they have assembled for an hour or two of relaxation and amusement. Yet it is at the play that our restlessness is most apparent. Watch an audience (which, be it remarked in passing, has arrived late) during the last ten minutes of a performance. No sooner do they discover that the end is drawing near than people begin to struggle into their wraps. By the time the players have lined up before the footlights the house is full of disappearing backs.

Past, indeed, are the unruffled days when a heroine was expected (after the action of a play had ended) to deliver the closing envoi dear to the writers of Queen Anne’s day. Thackeray writes:-

The play is done! The curtain drops,
Slow falling to the prompter’s bell!
A moment yet the actor stops,
And looks around, to say farewell!

A comedian who attempted any such abuse of the situation to-day would find himself addressing empty benches. Before he had finished the first line of his epilogue, most of his public would be housed in the rapid transit cars. No talent, no novelty holds our audiences to the end of a performance.

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On the opening night of the opera season this winter, one third of the “boxes” and orchestra stalls were vacant before Romeo (who, being a foreigner, was taking his time) had expired.

One overworked matron of my acquaintance has perfected an ingenious and time-saving combination. By signalling from a window near her opera box to a footman below, she is able to get her carriage at least two minutes sooner than her neighbors.

During the last act of an opera like Tann-h�user or Faust, in which the inconsiderate composer has placed a musical gem at the end, this lady is worth watching. After getting into her wraps and overshoes she stands, hand on the door, at the back of her box, listening to the singers; at a certain moment she hurries to the window, makes her signal, scurries back, hears Calvé pour her soul out in Anges purs, anges radieux, yet manages to get down the stairs and into her carriage before the curtain has fallen.

We deplore the prevailing habit of “slouch”; yet if you think of it, this universal hurry is the cause of it. Our cities are left unsightly, because we cannot spare time to beautify them. Nervous diseases are distressingly prevalent; still we hurry! hurry!! hurry!!! until, as a diplomatist recently remarked to me, the whole nation seemed to him to be but five minutes ahead of an apoplectic fit.

The curious part of the matter is that after several weeks at home, much that was strange at first becomes quite natural to the traveller, who finds himself thinking with pity of benighted foreigners and their humdrum ways, and would resent any attempts at reform.

What, for instance, would replace for enterprising souls the joy of taking their matutinal car at a flying leap, or the rapture of being first out of a theatre? What does part of a last act or the “star song” matter in comparison with five minutes of valuable time to the good? Like the river captains, we propose to run under full head of steam and get there, or b— explode!

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