A Race Of Slaves by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

It is all very well for us to have invaded Europe, and awakened that somnolent continent to the lights and delights of American ways; to have beautified the cities of the old world with graceful trolleys and illuminated the catacombs at Rome with electricity. Every true American must thrill with satisfaction at these achievements, and the knowledge that he belongs to a dominating race, before which the waning civilization of Europe must fade away and disappear.

To have discovered Europe and to rule as conquerors abroad is well, but it is not enough, if we are led in chains at home. It is recorded of a certain ambitious captain whose “Commentaries” made our school-days a burden, that “he preferred to be the first in a village rather than second at Rome.” Oddly enough, we are contented to be slaves in our villages while we are conquerors in Rome. Can it be that the struggles of our ancestors for freedom were fought in vain? Did they throw off the yoke of kings, cross the Atlantic, found a new form of government on a new continent, break with traditions, and sign a declaration of independence, only that we should succumb, a century later, yielding the fruits of their hard-fought battles with craven supineness into the hands of corporations and municipalities; humbly bowing necks that refuse to bend before anointed sovereigns, to the will of steamboat subordinates, the insolence of be-diamonded hotel-clerks, and the captious conductor?

Last week my train from Washington arrived in Jersey City on time. We scurried (like good Americans) to the ferry-boat, hot and tired and anxious to get to our destination; a hope deferred, however, for our boat was kept waiting forty long minutes, because, forsooth, another train from somewhere in the South was behind time. Expostulations were in vain. Being only the paying public, we had no rights that those autocrats, the officials, were bound to respect. The argument that if they knew the southern train to be so much behind, the ferry-boat would have plenty of time to take us across and return, was of no avail, so, like a cargo of “moo-cows” (as the children say), we submitted meekly. In order to make the time pass more pleasantly for the two hundred people gathered on the boat, a dusky potentate judged the moment appropriate to scrub the cabin floors. So, aided by a couple of subordinates, he proceeded to deluge the entire place in floods of water, obliging us to sit with our feet tucked up under us, splashing the ladies’ skirts and our wraps and belongings.

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Such treatment of the public would have raised a riot anywhere but in this land of freedom. Do you suppose any one murmured? Not at all. The well-trained public had the air of being in church. My neighbors appeared astonished at my impatience, and informed me that they were often detained in that way, as the company was short of boats, but they hoped to have a new one in a year or two. This detail did not prevent that corporation advertising our train to arrive in New York at three- thirteen, instead of which we landed at four o’clock. If a similar breach of contract had happened in England, a dozen letters would have appeared in the “Times,” and the grievance been well aired.

Another infliction to which all who travel in America are subjected is the brushing atrocity. Twenty minutes before a train arrives at its destination, the despot who has taken no notice of any one up to this moment, except to snub them, becomes suspiciously attentive and insists on brushing everybody. The dirt one traveller has been accumulating is sent in clouds into the faces of his neighbors. When he is polished off and has paid his “quarter” of tribute, the next man gets up, and the dirt is then brushed back on to number one, with number two’s collection added.

Labiche begins one of his plays with two servants at work in a salon. “Dusting,” says one of them, “is the art of sending the dirt from the chair on the right over to the sofa on the left.” I always think of that remark when I see the process performed in a parlor car, for when it is over we are all exactly where we began. If a man should shampoo his hair, or have his boots cleaned in a salon, he would be ejected as a boor; yet the idea apparently never enters the heads of those who soil and choke their fellow-passengers that the brushing might be done in the vestibule.

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On the subject of fresh air and heat we are also in the hands of officials, dozens of passengers being made to suffer for the caprices of one of their number, or the taste of some captious invalid. In other lands the rights of minorities are often ignored. With us it is the contrary. One sniffling school-girl who prefers a temperature of 80 degrees can force a car full of people to swelter in an atmosphere that is death to them, because she refuses either to put on her wraps or to have a window opened.

Street railways are torture-chambers where we slaves are made to suffer in another way. You must begin to reel and plunge towards the door at least two blocks before your destination, so as to leap to the ground when the car slows up; otherwise the conductor will be offended with you, and carry you several squares too far, or with a jocose “Step lively,” will grasp your elbow and shoot you out. Any one who should sit quietly in his place until the vehicle had come to a full stop, would be regarded by the slave-driver and his cargo as a poseur who was assuming airs.

The idea that cars and boats exist for the convenience of the public was exploded long ago. We are made, dozens of times a day, to feel that this is no longer the case. It is, on the contrary, brought vividly home to us that such conveyances are money making machines in the possession of powerful corporations (to whom we, in our debasement, have handed over the freedom of our streets and rivers), and are run in the interest and at the discretion of their owners.

It is not only before the great and the powerful that we bow in submission. The shop-girl is another tyrant who has planted her foot firmly on the neck of the nation. She respects neither sex nor age. Ensconced behind the bulwark of her counter, she scorns to notice humble aspirants until they have performed a preliminary penance; a time she fills up in cheerful conversation addressed to other young tyrants, only deciding to notice customers when she sees their last grain of patience is exhausted. She is often of a merry mood, and if anything about your appearance or manner strikes her critical sense as amusing, will laugh gayly with her companions at your expense.

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A French gentleman who speaks our language correctly but with some accent, told me that he found it impossible to get served in our stores, the shop-girls bursting with laughter before he could make his wants known.

Not long ago I was at the Compagnie Lyonnaise in Paris with a stout American lady, who insisted on tipping her chair forward on its front legs as she selected some laces. Suddenly the chair flew from under her, and she sat violently on the polished floor in an attitude so supremely comic that the rest of her party were inwardly convulsed. Not a muscle moved in the faces of the well-trained clerks. The proprietor assisted her to rise as gravely as if he were bowing us to our carriage.

In restaurants American citizens are treated even worse than in the shops. You will see cowed customers who are anxious to get away to their business or pleasure sitting mutely patient, until a waiter happens to remember their orders. I do not know a single establishment in this city where the waiters take any notice of their customers’ arrival, or where the proprietor comes, toward the end of the meal, to inquire if the dishes have been cooked to their taste. The interest so general on the Continent or in England is replaced here by the same air of being disturbed from more important occupations, that characterizes the shop- girl and elevator boy.

Numbers of our people live apparently in awe of their servants and the opinion of the tradespeople. One middle-aged lady whom I occasionally take to the theatre, insists when we arrive at her door on my accompanying her to the elevator, in order that the youth who presides therein may see that she has an escort, the opinion of this subordinate apparently being of supreme importance to her. One of our “gilded youths” recently told me of a thrilling adventure in which he had figured. At the moment he was passing under an awning on his way to a reception, a gust of wind sent his hat gambolling down the block. “Think what a situation,” he exclaimed. “There stood a group of my friends’ footmen watching me. But I was equal to the situation and entered the house as if nothing had happened!” Sir Walter Raleigh sacrificed a cloak to please a queen. This youth abandoned a new hat, fearing the laughter of a half-dozen servants.

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One of the reasons why we have become so weak in the presence of our paid masters is that nowhere is the individual allowed to protest. The other night a friend who was with me at a theatre considered the acting inferior, and expressed his opinion by hissing. He was promptly ejected by a policeman. The man next me was, on the contrary, so pleased with the piece that he encored every song. I had paid to see the piece once, and rebelled at being obliged to see it twice to suit my neighbor. On referring the matter to the box-office, the caliph in charge informed me that the slaves he allowed to enter his establishment (like those who in other days formed the court of Louis XIV.) were permitted to praise, but were suppressed if they murmured dissent. In his Memoires, Dumas, pere, tells of a “first night” when three thousand people applauded a play of his and one spectator hissed. “He was the only one I respected,” said Dumas, “for the piece was bad, and that criticism spurred me on to improve it.”

How can we hope for any improvement in the standard of our entertainments, the manners of our servants or the ways of corporations when no one complains? We are too much in a hurry to follow up a grievance and have it righted. “It doesn’t pay,” “I haven’t got the time,” are phrases with which all such subjects are dismissed. We will sit in over-heated cars, eat vilely cooked food, put up with insolence from subordinates, because it is too much trouble to assert our rights. Is the spirit that prompted the first shots on Lexington Common becoming extinct? Have the floods of emigration so diluted our Anglo-Saxon blood that we no longer care to fight for liberty? Will no patriot arise and lead a revolt against our tyrants?

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I am prepared to follow such a leader, and have already marked my prey. First, I will slay a certain miscreant who sits at the receipt of customs in the box-office of an up-town theatre. For years I have tried to propitiate that satrap with modest politeness and feeble little jokes. He has never been softened by either, but continues to “chuck” the worst places out to me (no matter how early I arrive, the best have always been given to the speculators), and to frown down my attempts at self-assertion.

When I have seen this enemy at my feet, I shall start down town (stopping on the way to brain the teller at my bank, who is perennially paring his nails, and refuses to see me until that operation is performed), to the office of a night-boat line, where the clerk has so often forced me, with hundreds of other weary victims, to stand in line like convicts, while he chats with a “lady friend,” his back turned to us and his leg comfortably thrown over the arm of his chair. Then I will take my blood-stained way–but, no! It is better not to put my victims on their guard, but to abide my time in silence! Courage, fellow-slaves, our day will come!

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